Rand Paul, Marco Rubio Embody GOP Split on Syria

Obama faces uphill road with congressional OK for military strike.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., asks a question of Secretary of State John Kerry on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, as Kerry testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria.
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Debate over whether or not the United States launch a military strike in Syria following reports of chemical weapons attacks isn't splitting lawmakers along partisan lines, but the fault lines it's leaving in the Republican Party – and potentially the 2016 presidential race – are obvious.

A Senate committee hearing Tuesday laid bare those differences, as top 2016 prospects Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., laid out disparate cases for action – or inaction – in Syria.

[READ: Boehner Says Getting Votes on Syria Is Up to Obama]

Rubio, elected in 2010 with tea party support, has spent some of his time in the Senate bolstering his foreign policy chops and adopting a hawkish stance. He advocated for arming Syrian rebels as far back as two years ago – and while he didn't sound prepared to vote to authorize President Barack Obama to launch a military strike, it's because he thinks it's too little, too late.

 

"What we are seeing here now is proof and an example that when we ignore these problems, these problems don't ignore us; that we can ignore them but eventually they come to visit us at our doorstep," Rubio told a panel of top Obama officials during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. He added that he worries the instability created by the Syrian civil war, which has stretched on for two years and left more than 100,000 dead, is creating an opportunity for terrorist groups to thrive.

"That's the mess that we are left with now and all the options are less than ideal," Rubio said. "Quite frankly I am a bit skeptical that what the president is asking for will provide the support needed to achieve these objectives."

Paul, meanwhile, took up the cause left by his libertarian-leaning father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. He noted that the American public remains firmly opposed to military action in Syria and skeptical that such intervention would even be effective.

"I haven't had one person come up to me and say they are for this war," he said.

[READ: John Kerry, Chuck Hagel Pitch Syrian Strike to Congress]

Paul, who is arguably the Senate's de facto tea party leader, said he hasn't yet decided whether or not he will launch a talking filibuster as he did earlier this year to demand answers on the Obama administration's drone use, to stall military action.

"I've got to check my shoes and check my ability to hold my water and we'll see; I haven't made a decision on that," Paul said on a press call following the hearing. "I don't think anybody really doubts that there was a chemical attack. … We just differ exactly on what the response should be."

As past presidential elections have proven, military authorization votes can be consequential – most notably in the 2008 campaign when Hillary Clinton's past vote in support of the war in Iraq hindered her, while her opponent Barack Obama, not yet serving in the U.S. Senate, vociferously opposed it.

And while such votes may matter more to voters on the left, there's reason to believe it matters to some of the top money men and establishment on the right. One of the greatest stumbling blocks in the presidential campaigns by Ron Paul was his isolationist attitude when it was vogue for Republicans to be pro-war. He was mocked by Republican presidential primary rivals, as well as his congressional colleagues, for not adhering to the doctrine of the GOP establishment.

[OPINION: Before Obama Shoots, He Scores]

As a new Republican Party emerges, it remains unknown whether or not a willingness to beat the war drums carries the same weight. The 2012 campaign didn't provide much perspective, as Republican candidates from Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum and eventual nominee Mitt Romney all fell over themselves to outdo each other in condemning Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and castigating Obama for being too weak in the region and failing to stand up in defense of Israel.

But as the Syrian crises and other foreign policy issues play out over the remainder of Obama's presidency, there's no doubt potential presidential candidates – Rubio and Paul chiefly among them – are keeping 2016 in mind as they jockey for position.