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McCain threatens hold on Dempsey's Joint Chiefs confirmation over Syria

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says he will place a hold on the confirmation of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey until Dempsey provides his personal opinion on U.S. military intervention in Syria.

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“I’m putting a hold on Gen. Dempsey until Gen. Dempsey responds to legitimate questions that he committed to do,” McCain told reporters after Dempsey’s confirmation hearing Thursday.

McCain and Dempsey got into a heated exchange during the hearing, as McCain pressed the Joint Chiefs chairman to state his personal opinion on what military action the United States should take.

McCain repeatedly asked Dempsey to say whether the U.S. would have been better off intervening in Syria rather than not taking any military action. McCain said that the situation has worsened in the two-year civil war under Dempsey’s tenure and accused him of policy “pirouettes” on arming the Syrian opposition.

Dempsey responded that it would be inappropriate to provide his own opinion because the Obama administration is currently deliberating on the issue.

“I will let this committee know what my recommendations are at the appropriate time,” Dempsey said.

That didn’t satisfy McCain, who argued that Dempsey had agreed to provide his views to the committee as a condition of his confirmation.

“The chairman just asked you if you would give your personal opinion to the committee if asked. You said yes. I'm asking for your opinion,” McCain said.

“If it is your position that you do not provide personal views to the committee when asked — only under certain circumstances — then you have just contradicted what I have known this committee to operate under for the last 30 years,” he said at the conclusion of his questioning.

Dempsey has been the chairman of the Joint Chiefs for two years, and last month President Obama renominated him and Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld for a second two-year term.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has also advocated for more U.S. action in Syria, tried to smooth things over at the end of the hearing.

He asked Dempsey to submit a list of options in Syria, as well as the pros and cons associated with them. Levin said he was not asking for Dempsey’s opinion on the best option.

Dempsey agreed to do so in the next few days.

But McCain suggested that wouldn’t allay his concerns or stop his threat to hold Dempsey’s nomination.

“He’s free to do that, and I’m free to do what I’d do,” McCain said.

Levin told reporters Thursday afternoon that he was hopeful Dempsey’s responses to the committee would satisfy McCain. The senators spoke about the hold on Thursday.

“I expressed the hope to Sen. McCain that there may be something in that assessment which gives him greater reassurance,” Levin said. “I don’t know if it will, but that was the way in which a legitimate issue needs to be addressed.”

Dempsey appears to have support from most other lawmakers on the Armed Services Committee, as McCain was the only senator to question his overall judgment at Thursday’s hearing. He was confirmed in a voice vote two years ago.

McCain has been one of the most vocal critics of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria and its unwillingness to take steps, like setting up a no-fly zone. He slammed Dempsey on Thursday for making “pirouettes” and changing his views on arming the rebels, which the administration decided to do last month.

Dempsey fought back against McCain’s charges that the U.S. had been inactive in Syria and said it wasn’t up to him to decide whether to use military force.

“Senator, somehow you’ve got me portrayed as the one who’s holing back for our use of military force,” Dempsey said. “The decision on whether to use force is the decision of our elected officials.”

This story was updated at 4:47 p.m.