Kerry hears skepticism from both sides at contentious House hearing

Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryNew Hampshire primary turnout is a boost to Democrats New Hampshire only exacerbates Democratic Party agita If Trump renegotiates Iran's nuclear deal, should it be a treaty this time? MORE faced skeptics in both parties at a contentious House hearing Wednesday where he made the case for a military strike against Syria.

Republicans and Democrats alike raised question about the wisdom of interfering in a civil war and the risks of the United States getting bogged down.

Several said opposition to Bashar Assad's regime was dominated by Islamist militants, and that the U.S. military would be fighting alongside al Qaeda if it gets involved.

“My concern is, any strike against this regime, as bad as it is, will empower these radical Islamists, these extremists,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Homeland Security panel. “So my greatest concern when we look at Syria is who is gonna fill the vacuum when the Assad regime falls, which we know that it will?”

“You know, those images of children in Damascus are horrific. I do not want to see those images in the United States.”

The hearing got particularly heated when Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) asked Kerry if the “power of the executive branch” was “so intoxicating” that he would “abandon past caution in favor [of] pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?” 

He accused the administration of rushing to war in Syria after having ignored the pleas for help of the four Americans who were killed in Benghazi one year ago.

Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, asked for a point of privilege to respond to Duncan.

“Let me begin, congressman, by challenging your proposition that I've never done anything except advocate caution, because I volunteered to fight for my country, and that wasn't a cautious thing to do when I did it,” he said.

“When I was in the United States Senate, I supported military action in any number of occasions, including Grenada, Panama; I can run a list of them. And I am not gonna sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this. We're talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious, he concluded.”

Several Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee spoke against the use of military force — despite support for action from Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerCoronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 Lobbying world Pelosi-Trump relationship takes turn for the terrible MORE (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorThe Democrats' strategy conundrum: a 'movement' or a coalition? The biggest political upsets of the decade Bottom Line MORE (R-Va.).

“Regardless of the minimization of intervention, an American military personnel will die,” Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) said. “This I cannot accept. Soldiers coming home deformed and limbless and even in a body bag is not acceptable to me and, therefore, I cannot and will not vote for this intervention into Syria.”

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) made the case for the creation of an international war crimes tribunal for Syria to judge Assad and other regime officials. He said he believed there were alternatives to a military strike.

Some Republicans have gone as far as hinting that the strikes are timed to take attention away from domestic issues, accusations past presidents in both parties have previously faced.

Rep. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonSchumer reminds colleagues to respect decorum at State of the Union speech US officials, world leaders arrive in Israel for World Holocaust Forum  Valerie Plame: 'I'm alarmed' over escalation with Iran MORE (R-S.C.) asked if action was delayed after the first reports of chemical weapons use were delayed “to divert attention today from the Benghazi, IRS, NSA scandals, the failure of ObamaCare enforcement, the tragedy of the White House-drafted sequestration, or the upcoming debt limit vote? Again, why was there no call for military response four months ago when the president's red line was crossed?”

A number of liberal Democrats also have grave concerns.

“Here we are, left to topple the last minority regime in the Middle East,” Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) said. “And, for the third time, in a decade, entering a national civil war in that part of the world, essentially alone, again.”

“Mr. Secretary, you said the world is watching what we are doing,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said. “But I've yet to hear some concrete things of what the world is doing. I'm afraid that they will isolate the United States, where we are only doing something unilaterally, while the world just sit backs and watches, when it's an international violation that took place.”

Kerry sought to assuage those concerns by announcing that 53 nations had concluded that chemical weapons were used in Syria last month. He said a number of U.S. allies in the region support U.S. action. He said 31 of them have publicly or privately pinned the blame on Bashar Assad's regime and 34 “would support some form of action against Assad” if the allegations prove to be true.

The number of lawmakers who remain on the fence or outright oppose intervention in Syria far outweighed outright supporters.

Nine lawmakers, most of them Republicans, indicated strong opposition to a strike. Another nine or so made clear they have deep reservations, including panel chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.).

“There are concerns,” Royce said in his opening statement. “The president promises a military operation in Syria of limited scope and duration. But the Assad regime would have a say in what happens next. That'd be particularly true as President Obama isn't aiming to change the situation on the ground. What are the chances of escalation?”

The Obama administration however did get key support from two Republican military veterans on the committee, Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSenate votes to rein in Trump's power to attack Iran Coronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 Trump under pressure to renew last nuke treaty with Russia MORE (R-Ark.). 

“In listening to some of my colleagues, it's been amazing to me that we are seeming to paralyze ourselves into inaction, running through every potential scenario that could occur in this,” said Kinzinger. “And it makes me wonder, God help us if we become a country that can't do the right thing because we paralyze ourselves to inaction.”

The top Democrat on the committee, Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Reps. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) also expressed support for limited strikes.

“I believe, like you, Mr. Secretary, that American credibility on the international stage hangs in the balance. And while it's crucial to make sure that Assad never uses chemical weapons again, I believe there's something even greater at stake, and that is the message we send to Iran as they continue to pursue a dangerous nuclear weapons capability,” Engel said.

This story was updated at 6:19 p.m.