U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen is convinced the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its citizens.
But the Everett Democrat is uncertain how the United States should respond and is one of many members of Congress withholding support for military intervention for the time being.
“I’m undecided right now,” Larsen said Monday. “The Syrian problem right now is in fact a civil war. What I’m trying to think through is does the military action the president is proposing make the U.S. part of that civil war.”
Larsen and the rest of Congress may not need to decide anything soon after Tuesday’s news that Syria may give up its stockpile of chemical weapons.
“The president needs to take advantage of this diplomatic opening, but Syria needs to back its words with deeds,” Larsen, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday shortly before President Barack Obama addressed the nation.
Obama called on Congress to back military action soon after accounts of chemical weapon use emerged. But few members have done so and in this state’s federal delegation, indecision crosses party lines.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers said they wanted to hear from constituents and read any potential resolutions before making up their minds.
Each has received hundreds of phone calls and emails, mostly from opponents of military action. In some cases, the debate is raging through posts on the respective lawmaker’s Facebook pages.
Several lawmakers shared their concern that what Syria did violates international norms and requires some kind of response.
“The use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians is something everyone around the world condemns and believes must end,” said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Whidbey Island in a statement. “But we must weigh our response — even if limited in nature — with the recent lessons of intervention in the Middle East in mind, and with answers to many of the long-term questions about what comes after a strike having been addressed.”
On Tuesday, she added this to her position:
“I believe we must explore the potential for a diplomatic solution while ensuring that Syria knows the U.S. and the world are absolutely serious about preventing further chemical weapons atrocities.”
Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a measure giving Obama up to 90 days to conduct a limited air strike while barring use of ground troops.
That measure will likely be scrapped in favor of new language to reflect the evolving situation. What it will say is unknown and how senators will vote is far from scripted at this stage.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Edmonds does want humanitarian aid to flow to the Syrian people and military aid provided to moderate forces in the Syrian opposition, according to her spokesman, Jared Leopold. She also wants the U.S. to work with allies in the region, including Israel, to protect American interests, he said.
“Senator Cantwell has serious questions about the strategic goals of a military strike in Syria and possible outcomes,” he said. “She looks forward to hearing more from the Obama administration on its strategy to promote a stable Syria and avoid open-ended involvement in an escalated regional conflict.”
In the House of Representatives, no resolution has been drafted or debated, which is why many members are reticent to take a definitive stance.
That includes Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, who serves in the leadership of the majority GOP caucus.
“As of right now, the congresswoman is carefully considering whether or not to vote to authorize the use of military force in Syria and would like the president to inform Congress how this act would fit in to his broader strategy in the Middle East,” said the congresswoman’s spokeswoman, Melanie Collett.
While U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, a Seattle Democrat, is leaning “very strongly” against Obama’s desired course of action on Tuesday, he is “officially” undecided, said his spokeswoman, Amber Macdonald. He, too, wants to see the final text of any measure before taking a stand.
“It seems clear that the Assad regime has used deadly chemical weapons against the Syrian people in blatant violation of the international ban against such weapons. I condemn these atrocities unequivocally,” McDermott said in an Aug. 30 statement.
“And yet, as the thunder of the war drums escalates, we cannot allow the din to drown out the careful and complete consideration of our actions.”
Republican Congressman Dave Reichert of Issaquah issued a statement Monday revealing little desire to move quickly.
“It is important that the president is taking the proper, constitutional steps in seeking congressional approval. However, he will need to make a case both to Congress and the American people before any final decision can be made,” he said.
The Obama administration is providing classified briefings to most members of Congress. Freshman Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Medina Democrat, expected to receive hers this week.
What she learns will be weighed against the loud voices of opposition emanating from the 1st Congressional District that includes part of Snohomish County.
“I oppose the Bashar al-Assad regime, but I am concerned about the U.S. getting into another long-term military operation without clearly defined objectives,” she said Monday.
“As I stated previously, any military action in Syria must be done with careful consultation with Congress and the American people,” she said. “I look forward to an open and honest debate about the potential impacts of U.S. military intervention in Syria.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.