By DONNA CASSATA and KEN THOMAS, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's plea to Congress for the go-ahead for military strikes against Syria is forcing ambitious Republicans weighing a White House bid to choose sides, as the party is bitterly divided over the U.S. role in foreign policy.
Two leading Senate Republican contenders — Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida — opposed a resolution on Wednesday in a Senate committee to give Obama the authority to use military force against Syria. The resolution was approved 10-7, with Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., voting present.
Rubio said he was unconvinced that the military action would work, saying the Syrian people must remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power. But in casting his vote, Rubio warned that an isolationist approach would undermine U.S. foreign policy interests.
"It is true that we cannot solve every crisis on this planet, but if we follow the advice of those who seek to disengage us from global issues, in the long run, we will pay a terrible price because America is not just another country - it's an exceptional one," he said.
Paul, a leading anti-interventionist in the GOP, has remained unequivocal in his opposition, tangling with Secretary of State John Kerry over constitutional powers and the possibility that a U.S. attack will further destabilize the Mideast. The tea party favorite sees only a downside to a U.S. attack.
"There's no sentiment in Kentucky, and the people up here are so out of touch," Paul told reporters Tuesday on a conference call after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with Kerry and other national security officials. "These senators who are going to vote for this, they need to go home and talk to their people or look at what their people are saying because people do not want to get involved in Syria and, despite what the people want, their senators are going to vote the opposite way, I have a bad feeling."
Paul didn't rule out a Senate filibuster of a resolution authorizing the president to use military force.
The administration says it has proof that the Assad regime used deadly chemical weapons in an attack on Damascus suburbs and must respond. It places the number killed at 1,429 people, including 426 children. However, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the death toll at 502.
Potential Republican presidential candidates hardly want to appear weak on national security, an issue that traditionally has been a strength for the GOP. But no one knows whether the United States would be drawn into a protracted conflict or if limited military steps would prove unsuccessful in the 2-year-old civil war.
Any Republican who supports the use of force resolution essentially will be siding with Obama, who is despised in conservative circles, and a vote in favor could anger more isolationist Republicans who are wary of getting involved in another military conflict after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The votes could dog Republican candidates with voters in early primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Even the most nuanced explanation for a vote could be undermined by events on the ground.
Yet if Republicans oppose the resolution, they could be accused of giving Assad a pass after his regime used chemical weapons.
Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, said a vote in favor of the resolution would be the equivalent of "a purchase of stock over the long term in Obama's decision-making on Syria."
"Any Republican may go into a vote thinking, 'I have given authority for a limited scope of action to the president,' but the reality is you're buying stock in the president's current decisions on Syria and also his future actions in any escalation that may occur," Schmidt said.
Polls show public opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria, regardless of whether Syria's government used chemical weapons on its people, and doubts about airstrikes across party lines.
A war vote can make or break a candidate. Just ask Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In the 2008 Democratic primary, Obama used the October 2002 vote for the Iraq war as a cudgel against Clinton, who along with John Edwards voted to give President George W. Bush the broad authority to invade Iraq. Edwards said his vote was a mistake; Clinton stood by her decision — and never recovered with strong anti-war Democratic voters.