WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - President Obama does not want a major military commitment in Syria, top administration officials told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, but the failure to respond to Syria's chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,400 people will send the wrong signal to rogue regimes around the world.
That argument, expressed by Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, won the general support of most committee members. The panel's chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and ranking Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, said the United States needed to act against Syria.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was the most skeptical member of the committee, saying he hoped Obama would abide by the will of Congress but is "concerned he doesn't really mean it."
Menendez opened the hearing on the Obama administration's case for military action in Syria by calling the Aug. 21 attack that killed at least 426 children "sickening."
The three witnesses sought to show why it was necessary for the United States to act against Bashar Assad's government in the face of ongoing skepticism from a divided Congress.
Menendez and committee Democrats, such as Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, said the brutality of the attack made a U.S. response necessary. "In my view the world cannot ignore the inhumanity and the horror of this act," Menendez said.
Boxer, a liberal Democrat, opposed the 2002 authorization of the Iraq war but said Syria was different, in part because the Senate resolution will make it clear this is a more limited engagement with no troops on the ground. "I will support a targeted effort but not a blank check against Syria gassing its people to death," Boxer said.
Corker and committee Republicans tended to support the administration's call for action, but criticized Obama for not acting on behalf of Syria's rebels before now. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the failure to act earlier has forced the administration to do something now.
Paul challenged Kerry, asking him if the administration would abide by a vote in Congress rejecting military action in Syria. He also questioned the effectiveness of a strike in deterring Assad from further chemical attacks.
Paul, perhaps the chamber's most vocal opponent of intervention and a 2016 presidential contender, sought to extract a pledge that the administration would not act if Congress votes it down.
"If this is real, you will abide by the vote of Congress," Paul said, maintaining that he does not believe Obama would have the constitutional authority to do so without it.
"The president intends to win this vote," Kerry responded.
Kerry also said failing to strike Syria guaranteed that Assad would be emboldened to use chemical weapons again.
Assad is responsible for the attack, Kerry said, adding that the Syrian government prepared for it and warned its troops to protect themselves from the toxins.
"It did happen," Kerry said. "And the Assad regime did it."
Kerry, a former chairman of the foreign relations committee, said neither he nor Hagel, another former senator, would ask the Senate to vote based on faulty intelligence. Their intelligence, Kerry said, was definitive.
Kerry and Hagel are both decorated veterans of the Vietnam war.
Hagel told senators that the objective of military action would be to hold Syria's government accountable for using chemical weapons, degrade its ability to mount more attacks and deter it and other adversaries such as Iran and North Korea from using weapons of mass destruction.
In an exchange with Menendez, Kerry appeared to leave open the possibility of sending U.S. troops to Syria. The exchange irked Corker.
"I didn't find that to be an appropriate response," said Corker. "I don't think there are any of us here willing to support the possibility of combat troops on the ground."
Kerry quickly backtracked. "Let's shut that door now, as tight as we can...There will not be American boots on the ground in respect to the civil war."
The hearing was interrupted by protesters who were escorted from the hearing room.
On Wednesday, the committee will hold a second, closed hearing on classified information regarding the decision to engage in Syria because the Assad regime used chemical weapons in the nation's ongoing civil war. Hagel and Dempsey will hold another closed-door hearing for members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the morning.
Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey are also scheduled to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss Syria.
Tuesday's hearing followed private meetings at the White House between Obama and key congressional committee leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
After the meeting, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said they supported a military strike. "I intend to vote to provide the president of the United States the option to use military force in Syria," Cantor said in a statement.
Congress remains out of session until Sept. 9, but both the House and Senate are scheduled to vote next week on authorization resolutions, which are still being drafted.