HASC Takes on Syria – But Does Anyone Care?

Members of the House Armed Services Committee speak during a committee hearing on a proposed AUMF

Susan Walsh/AP

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Members of the House Armed Services Committee speak during a committee hearing on a proposed AUMF

The House Armed Services Committee finally got its chance to debate military action in Syria on Tuesday. But does the committee really have any influence over Congress’ vote? By Stephanie Gaskell

One by one, members of the House Armed Forces Committee asked question after question about a possible strike on Syria for using chemical weapons against its people. As Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey sat before Congress once again to make their case for military action, it was clear that not only was the committee the last to have a go at them — the fast-changing news events surrounding Syria made the hearing almost obsolete.

During the hearing, Kerry announced that Russia had agreed to get Syria to put its chemical weapons stockpile under international control. And as HASC Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) asked Kerry whether the Obama administration wanted the House to delay a vote on Syria — as the Senate did — events were moving so quickly and the committee was so late to the game, it almost didn’t matter.

McKeon wanted to know if a vote was even necessary at this point. “Will the president still seek a congressional vote on the AUMF [Authorization for the Use of Military Force]?” he asked after Kerry and Hagel made their opening statements. “We’re not asking Congress not to vote,” Kerry said, “but it may be, given what the Senate leader has decided, that we see if the Russians make a proposal in the next hours or not.”

So with the Senate vote delayed and the last-minute decision (announced just after the HASC hearing concluded) that President Obama would also wait to see whether Syria would comply with the Russian deal, it became increasingly clear that HASC would once again follow, rather than lead. After all, this is the committee that for two years begged its own House Republican leadership and rank-and-file members to avoid sequestration, and retain high defense spending levels, a plea that largely fell on deaf political ears.

At no point was this clearer than during a testy exchange between Kerry and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). “There has to be a reasonable period to try to work this out,” Kerry said when Miller asked him if the House should delay its vote. “The Senate has already delayed,” Kerry said. Miller shot back: “Because they don’t have the votes, Mr. Secretary. That’s why they delayed. You know that.”

“Actually I don’t,” Kerry said.

“Well, I do,” Miller replied.

“Well, I’m glad you know something,” Kerry said, adding that “this should not be a political discussion about whether there are votes or not.”

“I’m not being political, Mr. Secretary. This is the truth,” Miller said, asking Kerry once again if the House should delay its vote.

“I believe that the Senate has made —,” Kerry started. “This is the House of Representatives,” Miller said.

And so as events unfolded before them, including the news that Obama would delay a strike to see if the Russian plan would work, HASC members set about asking their questions of the panel. Most of the questions had been asked and answered over the past week.

Some members asked how budget cuts would affect the operation. Others asked about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. There were questions about red lines and what Iran might do. And all members were under a strict 5-minute deadline, leaving little time for meaningful debate anyway.

Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-Miss.) had no questions for the panel. “I think everything for the most part has been asked and it’s been answered.”

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