TAMPA — With momentum in Congress moving toward supporting the president’s call for a military attack against Syria, Tampa-area legislators are divided on what course of action to take.
Not by party, but by chamber.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, has already come out in favor of President Barack Obama’s call for a limited strike against the regime of Bashar al-Assad for what the White House says is undeniable proof of the Syrian leader’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.
Tuesday afternoon, Nelson remained steadfast in that belief.
“The president wants to put to rest any doubt the American people may have,” Nelson said in a prepared statement. “I support the president’s decision. But as far as I’m concerned, we should strike in Syria today. The use of chemical weapons was inhumane, and those responsible should be forced to suffer the consequences.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, has yet to stake out a firm position.
After hearing Obama on Saturday call for Congressional approval of an attack, Rubio said the “United States should only engage militarily when it is pursuing a clear and attainable national security goal. Military action taken simply to send a message or save face does not meet that standard.”
During Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Obama’s request for authority to attack Syria, Rubio remained skeptical about what a limited strike against the Assad regime would do. But he also said “what happens in Syria is of vital national interest to the United States and our national security.”
Syria, he said, is “also of interest to us because of the instability that this is creating in Syria, instability that’s allowing portions of Syria to quickly become kind of what Afghanistan was before 9/11, the premier operational space for global jihadists from abroad to come and train and fight and plan attacks in the future.”
The use of chemical weapons “undermines the post-WWII world order, which basically said that these things are unacceptable,” Rubio said.
Rubio also reminded the panel’s three witnesses - Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey - that two years ago, he unsuccessfully urged the Obama administration to provide more support to Assad’s opponents.
All three witnesses said they will present “clear evidence” during a classified briefing to the committee this morning showing that the Assad regime is responsible for the attack and that an attack against him will downgrade his ability to do so again.
Though Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, both Republicans, on Tuesday announced their support of the president’s call for military action, most Congressional representatives from the Tampa area are either opposed to or leaning against the idea.
“Without a direct threat to the national security of the United States, I oppose an overt military strike against Syria,” Rep. Kathy Castor wrote Aug. 30 in a letter to Obama. “An overt military strike by the United States is likely to exacerbate violence in the Middle East and put needed stability further out of reach.”
Like other area representatives, the Tampa Democrat cited a lack of constituent support as one reason for her decision.
“As I have visited with my neighbors across my district this month I have heard from many of them who are extremely wary of military action that could lead to greater entanglement in a region where fighting factions are not aligned with the United States and our allies or our national interests,” she wrote.
Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, whose district includes parts of Hillsborough and Sarasota counties, also said he won’t vote for a strike on Syria.
“If Assad went beyond his borders, obviously in Israel or one of our other allies, that is a totally different ballgame,” said Rooney, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “That is sort of Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait. Right now, you don’t have the UK, the UN, you don’t have the typical coalition of people and countries you normally see rallying behind condemnation.”
Rooney said that during his travels around the district during the congressional recess, constituent support for an attack on Syria is non-existent.
“I have not heard one person over the recess tell me we should engage in Syria,” said Rooney, who said he will attend a classified briefing on the issue on Thursday.
U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, who has come out against a U.S. attack on Syria, said Tuesday morning that, “I still haven’t changed my mind at this point in regards to our involvement.”
Nugent, a Republican whose district includes parts of Hernando and Pasco counties, is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. He said he was on a conference call Monday with other committee Republicans, who, like him, “are not convinced (attacking Syria) is a proper course of action.”
Still awaiting a classified briefing, which won’t happen until early next week, Nugent said he is not convinced the Assad regime was behind the attack in a suburb of Damascus on Aug. 21 as the White House and Pentagon assert.
“I’m not convinced it wasn’t the rebels,” Nugent said. “You see how they attack each other, attack mosques. I would not say it is out of the realm of possibility.”
Rep. Dennis Ross, a Republican who represents Polk County, attended a classified briefing given by representatives from the Pentagon, White House, and intelligence community. He said while “there is compelling circumstantial evidence that the Assad government used” chemical weapons” there are still so many unanswered questions” about the effect of a limited strike against Assad.
“I am trying to keep an open mind,” said Ross. “But I am having a difficult time seeing why I would support a resolution authorizing the use of military force.”
Ross said his office phone lines “have been lighting up against getting involved. The sentiment, not just in my district, but across the country is that we are exhausted from battles in the Middle East - anywhere, actually.”
Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, whose district represents most of Pinellas County, already has come out against an attack.
“I do not think the United States should make this a U.S. versus Syria issue,” Young said in an interview last week, “I don’t want the United States to get into another war in that part of the world. We could have a major, major war in that part of the world, it could expand in a major way.”
Young’s office did not respond to a phone call seeking additional comment Tuesday.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Republican whose district includes all of Pasco and parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, has not yet taken a stance.
“Engaging our military should include a clear, attainable goal and consider whether a direct national security risk to the United States exists,” he said in an emailed statement repeating what he said Saturay on the issue. “I share the concerns of many of my constituents in engaging in this civil war and will be returning to Washington to examine the evidence and debate this on the House floor.”
Bilirakis’ office declined Tuesday to elaborate on the written statement.