WASHINGTON: The Obama administration faces a tough examination of its plans for military intervention in Syria when it squares off against conservative Republicans and other skeptical House members a day after gaining the critical endorsement of the top House Republican and finding significant support in the Senate.
With President Barack Obama in Europe, his top national security aides were to participate Wednesday in a series of public and private hearings at the Capitol to advance their case for limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime in retaliation for what the administration says was a deadly sarin gas attack by his forces outside Damascus last month.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee could vote on authorizing the use of force as early as Wednesday. The panel's top members drafted a resolution late Tuesday that permits Obama to order a "limited and tailored" military mission against Syria, as long as it doesn't exceed 90 days and involves no American troops on the ground for combat operations.
"We have pursued a course of action that gives the president the authority he needs to deploy force in response to the Assad regime's criminal use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, while assuring that the authorization is narrow and focused," said the committee's chairman, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who drafted the measure with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel's senior Republican.
"We have an obligation to act, not witness and watch while a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in plain view," Menendez said.
The White House had no immediate reaction to the Senate measure, although Secretary of State John Kerry, testifying earlier before the committee, signaled that the troop restriction was acceptable to the administration. "There's no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground," he said.
Obama said earlier in the day he was open to revisions in the relatively broad request the White House made over the weekend. He expressed confidence Congress would respond to his call for support and said Assad's action "poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region."
Obama set the fast-paced events in motion on Saturday, when he unexpectedly stepped back from ordering a military strike under his own authority and announced he would seek congressional approval.
While the administration was making progress in the Senate, it also needed to persuade a Republican-dominated House of Representatives that has opposed almost the entirety of Obama's agenda since Republicans seized the majority more than three years ago. Several conservative Republicans and some anti-war Democrats already have come out in opposition to Obama's plans, even as Republican and Democratic House leaders gave their support to the president Tuesday.
House Speaker John Boehner emerged from a meeting at the White House and declared that the U.S. has "enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it's necessary."
Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, also backed action. But he acknowledged the split positions among both parties and said it was up to Obama to "make the case to Congress and to the American people that this is the right course of action."
Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, will try to make that argument in a public hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. They and other senior administration officials also will provide classified briefings to the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.
The administration says 1,429 people died from the attack on Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-government activists in Syria, says it has been compiling a list of the names of the dead and says its toll has reached 502. Assad's government blames the episode on the rebels. A United Nations inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country before completing a closely watched report.
Obama, who arrives in Stockholm early Wednesday, will be hoping to maintain the momentum toward congressional approval that he has generated since Saturday, when he announced he would ask lawmakers to authorize what until then had appeared to be imminent military action against Syria.
On Monday, the president met privately at the White House with the Senate's two leading Republican hawks, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and persuaded them to support his plans for an intervention on condition that he also try to aid the Syrian rebels seeking to oust Assad.
A day later, he sat down with Boehner, Cantor and several other senior lawmakers to make a similar case that Assad must be punished for breaching the nearly century-old international taboo of using chemical weapons and for crossing the "red line" Obama set nearly a year ago. After gaining significant support, Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey appeared to get the backing of most senators at Tuesday's hearing.
"You're probably going to win" Congress' backing, Sen. Rand Paul, a conservative senator and likely opponent of the measure, conceded in a late-afternoon exchange with Kerry.
However, even proponents of military action urged Obama to do more to sell his plans to an American public that is highly skeptical after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama, who will travel from Sweden's capital to an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday, has little international support for action right now. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the United States in a strike, although President Francois Hollande says he'll await the decision of the U.S. Congress.
A consistent refrain in Tuesday's Senate hearing was the need for clearer limits on the duration and scope of any resolution that authorizes military force. Chief among them was language barring American soldiers from being sent to fight in Syria, something Obama has said repeatedly he has no intention of doing.
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper, David Espo, Julie Pace, Josh Lederman, Donna Cassata, Alan Fram, Jennifer C. Kerr and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.