WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's push to strike Syria ran into a skeptical Congress Tuesday, but the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations signaled that as soon as Wednesday he could push ahead with a resolution to use force.
"I want to advise members I think we are close to a text on a resolution, and so they should consider it is likely that we may very well be in a business meeting sometime after the classified hearing tomorrow morning," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) in a hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
After sickening images of a chemical attack in metropolitan Damascus emerged, along with claims that 1,429 people were killed, President Barack Obama last week called for targeted strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and insisted his plan was a "limited, narrow act."
Menendez argued Tuesday that Congress should give Obama what he wants, comparing Assad to a schoolyard bully like those his mother advised him simply to avoid during his childhood.
"A week later, I saw the bully again and I did all my best to avoid him, and this time he punched me in the nose, and it was bloody," Menendez said. "It wasn't until the third time that we were by a construction site that I got a piece of wood and whacked the bully, and that was the end of it."
Menendez said there is a lesson to be learned from his boyhood troubles.
"Assad has made a calculation now ... that he can use chemical weapons, or he believes he can use chemical weapons without consequence," Menendez said. "And in doing so there is a global message that in fact other state actors and other non-state actors may believe they can do so as well."
But many other lawmakers sounded far less convinced, and saw a different message in voting to authorize a strike on Syria.
"I hope this hearing will do more than rubberstamp a decision that has already been made," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), referring to statements from Kerry and others that Obama believes he has the authority to act regardless of congressional action.
"With limited international support we are being told the United States must retaliate for the use of chemical weapons with a surgical bombing campaign of our own," Udall said. "We're being told that we're bombing in order to send a message. But what message are we sending?" Udall asked.
That message was that the U.S. will "be the world's policeman," he said.
He also pointed back to the United States' history of fighting Iraq, which began with retaliation for then-President of Iraq Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.
"I see this potential bombing campaign as a potential next step to full-fledged war. We've been here before," Udall said.
Other senators expressed similar doubts. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a vocal opponent of strikes, also suggested the first step could lead to events that spiral entirely out of anyone's control. He also wondered if the Senate debate might amount to little more than giving the White House cover if the administration won't agree to follow Congress' decision should lawmakers vote against the use of force.
"If we do not say that the Constitution applies, if we do not say explicitly that we will abide by this vote, you're making a joke of us," Paul told Kerry. "You're making us into theater, and so we play constitutional theater for the president."
Kerry assured members that although he could imagine reasons the U.S. might need boots on the ground, authorizing a limited attack on Assad did not mean the start of a new, open-ended conflict.
"President Obama is not asking America to go to war," Kerry told the Senate committee during the hearing which was twice interrupted by protesters. Kerry said that even if Assad fought back with further atrocities, the U.S. and its allies could respond short of going to war.
Some lawmakers who favor striking Assad also suggested they might oppose a resolution that was not robust enough, arguing that half measures would only make the situation worse.
"I think that's one of the risks," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters. "If it is so targeted and so limited, that it may have the opposite effect than the president intends, which is to discourage further use of chemical weapons. It may be viewed as so insignificant that it actually emboldens other international bullies."
Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long called for intervention in the ongoing civil war in Syria, said in an interview on NPR Tuesday that he might oppose a resolution that does not go far enough.
"If I believe it's a resolution that will only call for a few pinprick-type actions against Syria and not change the equation on the ground, I don't see how I can support it," McCain said, acknowledging that would put him in a "very difficult position."
Many other lawmakers were concerned about exactly what the U.S. could achieve.
"I want to know where we're going with this. What is the objective here?" said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I keep hearing that the objective is, 'well, we have to do something.' That's not good enough for me at this point," he said, adding that the "vast majority" of his constituents were opposed to military intervention. Indeed, few Americans think strikes would stop Assad.
Skepticism was not partisan, with several other Democrats who were not on the committee agreeing that they needed more persuading.
"I think the chemical weapons that were used is not acceptable whatsoever, but I'd like to see the rest of the world have the same concerns we have," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has so far opposed intervention.
Manchin added that he needed to see how not acting would pose a threat to the U.S. "What is the imminent danger to the United States of America and to Americans?" he said. "There's an old saying, 'we don't have a dog in the fight,' and I think in this case back home in West Virginia, they're saying, 'we don't have any friends in the fight either.'"
After a meeting at the White House with Obama in the morning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement that, "Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done -- and can be accomplished -- in Syria and the region."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said they would back Obama. But even Boehner, through a spokesman, said later that any vote would be a matter of "conscience" for individual members, suggesting that he would not pressure his conference to back the administration.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement through his spokesman that he needs more information to make a decision. "Absent a clear sense of what we must do, and why, it is impossible to formulate an appropriate and effective military response,” he said.
Kerry argued in the Tuesday hearing that if the U.S. doesn't act now, it will only send the message to other dictators and they can get away with using chemical weapons, and that Assad may do so again -- leaving an even tougher situation to confront.
"If we don't respond, we're going to be back here," Kerry said.