N.C. delegation divided on Syria airstrikes

McClatchy Washington BureauSeptember 3, 2013 

— The Republican leadership of the House of Representatives declared support on Tuesday for air strikes on Syria, but some Republicans in the North Carolina delegation expressed serious reservations and several said they’d vote against military retaliation.

Those saying they’d vote no were Republicans Renee Ellmers of Dunn and Walter Jones of Greenville.

Rep. Howard Coble, a Republican from Greensboro, said he was leaning to no. Rep. George Holding, a Republican from Raleigh, didn’t say how he’d vote, but said in a statement that even a limited military action could have unknown consequences and may not deter the Syrian regime.

Ellmers explained her decision on Tuesday by saying that the United States had learned from involvement in the Middle East and “the fog of war which clouds our judgment between friend and foe, perceived goals and collateral damage.”

“At this time, I see nothing but hardship, danger, and unprovoked sacrifice on the shoulders of our military, our troops, and their families,” she said in a statement, adding that reasons for not approving military force were shared by her constituents.

She added that she would stick to that position “unless further evidence shows a clear threat to our national interests and a clearly defined vision of victory.”

Coble said he was leaning toward voting no for three reasons: “We cannot afford it,” “we will be going it alone,” and “we will be a day late and a dollar short.”

Coble said his constituents “overwhelmingly agree” that the U.S. should not use military force in Syria. He called the use of chemical weapons “a heinous act of cowardice” and noted the deaths of 100,000 other people in the civil war but added: “We cannot afford to be the world’s police force.”

Jones said through his spokeswoman, Sarah Howard, that he was strongly opposed to U.S. involvement in Syria and would vote against any authorization for military action.

“In light of the enormous debt and budget constraints our country is facing, Congressman Jones believes the money that would be spent on military intervention in Syria should be put to use here at home,” Howard said.

Holding on Tuesday had nothing to add to his statement from a few days earlier, said his press secretary, Lindsay Hamilton.

“The decision to attack Syria boils down to a series of blunt questions: What abiding American interest makes an attack on another country unavoidable? Is there a justification for putting American lives in danger? What are the consequences of an attack?” Holding said in the statement, adding, “before I can consider voting for any military action, I am going to have to hear some convincing answers.”

Republican Sen. Richard Burr said on Saturday that “short of putting troops on the ground, it is time for the United States and our NATO allies to take necessary, punitive military action against the Syrian regime” and send a clear signal that the use of chemical weapons has consequences.

Burr spokesman Robert Reid on Tuesday confirmed that Burr would vote to support such a move to act.

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan also called for consequences for the use of chemical weapons. Hagan said in a statement on Tuesday that she did not support putting American troops in Syria, but that she would “closely review any resolution that would authorize a strong, targeted response.”

Hagan, a member of the Senate Armed Services committee, said she would have a classified briefing on Wednesday with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Other briefings and hearings are planned this week and early next week before the votes.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Tuesday said he would vote in favor and urged others to do the same. Majority leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., also said he’d vote to for the option to use force.

“America has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially by a terrorist state such as Syria, and to prevent further instability in a region of vital interest to the United States,” Cantor said.

Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat from Lumberton and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, tweeted on Tuesday with a link to his views of the key question.

As Congress debates, “the important question to be answered is whether our involvement in a foreign country’s civil war meets the threshold of endangering our own national security,” McIntyre said.

Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Republican from Charlotte, was traveling from Tokyo to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday. Pittenger is chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. Pittenger has said he would not support “an open-ended or ambiguous plan.”

“There are no good actors in the Syrian civil war, and the United States must be very careful not to become entangled in this internal conflict,” he said. “However, we should all be concerned by Syria’s substantial stockpile of chemical weapons and the risk these weapons could fall into the hands of al Qaida, Hezbollah or Hamas and used to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.”

Pittenger’s trip, which was arranged earlier, included much discussion about how to deal with Syria, said spokesman Jamie Bowers. Pittenger will go on to Cairo and NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, said in a statement that the use of chemical weapons against civilians demands a response. He said he would insist that the resolution is about limited retaliation “and not a prelude to American boots on the ground.”

Rep. Mel Watt, D-Charlotte, said in an interview that he hadn’t decided how he’d vote. He said there was enough information to conclude that the Assad regime used the chemical weapons.

“So it’s just a question of whether and how you respond and how you tailor it in such a way to deter future acts of this kind and not get into a full-fledged war, which I think would be a mistake,” Watt said.

Spokesmen for Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield and Republicans Richard Hudson and Mark Meadows on Tuesday said it was too early for them to say how they would vote.

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof

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