When the gavel sounded at the beginning of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's impromptu meeting on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel sat ready to make their case to their former colleagues – the U.S. must strike in retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's deployment of chemical weapons on his own people.
"Only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert this did not occur as described. It did happen," Kerry said. "And the Assad regime did it."
Kerry argued that none of the intelligence agencies had any doubt about the chemical attack that occurred in a Damascus suburb.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., opened the hearing by acknowledging the gravity of the deliberation ahead of Congress and the vast opposition in the room. He implored his colleagues to hear the case with an open mind.
"I voted against the war in Iraq and strongly support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan," Menendez said. "But today I support the President's decision to use military force in the face of this horrific crime against humanity."
Kerry challenged Congress to consider the impact of doing nothing in the region. He argued that the risk of ignoring not only the president's red line, but "the humanity's red line" would hurt the U.S.'s reputation around the world. His tact was surprising for a Secretary of State who as a senator and a former Democratic presidential candidate spoke out against the Iraq war and as a Vietnam veteran, devoted years to protesting that conflict.
When a protester from the group Code Pink was dragged out of the hearing room, Kerry acknowledged that his views had evolved since he first testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a Vietnam Veteran opposed to the war in 1971.
"The first time I testified before this committee, I had feelings similar to that protester," Kerry said.
Tuesday, senators argued the resolution to intercede in Syria was too broad. Many including Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., expressed concern that the language left the door open for another long-term military campaign in the region.
Kerry and Hagel tried to minimize those concerns, and urged their colleagues not to water down the resolution ahead of the vote, which is scheduled for next week.
Kerry made a surprising case "not to take anything off the table," explaining a hypothetical situation where boots on the ground would be needed if chemical weapons fell into the wrong hands.
Senators relentlessly pushed for more limitations.
"I hope we can work through something that is much clearer," Corker said. "I don't think there are any of us here who are willing to accept the responsibility that we will have boots on the ground."
Kerry tried to backtrack, assuring the panel that the Obama administration was not prepared to put troops in Syria.
"There will not be American boots on the ground," Kerry said.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., warned that the administration could see a failed vote if it didn't set more restrictions in the resolution.
So far, key Democrats and Republicans have said that they cannot vote for a plan that left the possibility of a long-term conflict in Syria on the table.
Others including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., expressed concern that a strike against Assad would do nothing to tilt the balance of power in the country.
"I am a bit skeptical that what [President Barack Obama] is asking for is even realistic," Rubio said.