By Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer
Despite mounting evidence that President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on his people, many members of Congress still don't see a role for the United States military in Syria.
A raft of Republican and Democratic lawmakers -- including those directly involved in intelligence oversight -- think the U.S. would be wise to take a pass on military intervention in the war-torn country.
Their line of thinking goes like this: Sending in U.S. troops now is too late, too dangerous, too pricey and not guaranteed to be successful. And a bombing campaign won't do enough. There's also the fear that the U.S. does not know who would lead Syria if Assad falls.
"Syria is too far gone to pick sides," said Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee who taught at West Point. "The rebels are infiltrated with Al Qaeda. Assad has joined the ranks of history's most evil despots in what he's willing to do to stay in power. And Russia won't help us find a solution because relations [between Washington and Moscow] are as bad as they have been in 30 years. I don't see a way forward, but U.S. boots on the ground is out of the question in my opinion."
Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, the No. 2 Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said that the situation in Syria is "as complicated as it could be" but added that military intervention in Syria could "have unintended consequences that could, in fact, make the situation worse."
"We should take all necessary steps to support the United Nations inspection efforts and keep a close watch on who has access and who could have access to chemical weapons," Sanchez said in an emailed statement. "We need to make sure an attack of this nature cannot happen again. Going forward, Congress should be involved in any course of action that the Obama Administration takes."
The administration's options range widely -- from sending in ground troops to deploying an air campaign to cripple Assad's resources to humanitarian aid. But at this point, members of Congress seem unconvinced.
Of course, thinking can evolve. Members of Congress return after Labor Day and are sure to hear more from the administration about its plans. And if the situation worsens, lawmakers' might change their positions.
Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican on the Intelligence Committee, told POLITICO that he is against any intervention unless there is "some overwhelming evidence that the Assad regime has used weapons and only the Assad regime has used the weapons."
The Obama administration "waited too long, now you're playing catch-up," Nunes said. "I think they need to come to Congress to get approval to go in and present a plan. I don't know what their plan would be. Just to lob a few missiles in there? Unless you're trying to take out the dictator himself, I don't know what you're going to do with a few missiles."
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that "Absent an imminent threat to United States national security, the U.S. should not be engaged in military action without congressional approval."
The rhetoric opposing intervention could be just that. President Barack Obama can take some military action without declaring war against Syria.
"It has some risk, but I don't think [Obama will] get much backlash," said Leslie Gelb, senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations who was an assistant secretary of state under Jimmy Carter. "If he did combine military action with diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives then, I think that would tend to mute any criticism because it would be tied to using the limited air attacks to advancing the negotiations."
And of course not all lawmakers are opposed to an uptick in U.S. involvement. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have called for "limited military action" in Syria. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) on Monday called for bombing Syria, according to local media reports in Illinois. And Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey has been urging tougher action on Syria for months, teaming up with the likes of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to offer legislation aimed at boosting humanitarian aid to the region while attempting to further isolate the Assad regime.
In an interview Monday, Casey said there are several things the administration could do that don't involve boots on the ground, including targeted missile strikes with a coalition of allies. And while Casey continued to press for tougher action, he acknowledged that the White House has been in a wrenching position over dealing with the foreign policy crisis -- given the economic and fiscal problems at home as well as the war-weary Congress and public.
"They are in a difficult position," Casey said of the administration. "Because if the Syrian policy were in isolation, it would be one thing, but we're in a difficult period in our history as well."
Casey added of the administration: "Overall over the last year or so, I would have hoped they would have been more aggressive [on Syria]. I would have to say over the last several months, they have been much more focused on it. I think they brought a sense of direction that might not have been there six months ago."
On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was "undeniable" that Syria used chemical weapons.
The Obama administration's strategy is only beginning to make its way to Capitol Hill. On Monday afternoon, House Speaker John Boehner had a preliminary conversation with the White House regarding Syria and any potential U.S. response. "The Speaker made clear that before any action is taken there must be meaningful consultation with members of Congress, as well as clearly defined objectives and a broader strategy to achieve stability," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement. Boehner did not speak directly with Obama -- the pair last spoke Aug. 2, when Obama thanked the speaker for sending ice cream and ribs for his birthday.
Other members of Congress are asking to hear more from the president -- and soon.
Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), a Marine veteran who represents the military-heavy Norfolk area, said Obama has mentioned working through coalition partners and the United Nations, but never Congress.
"It is not the king's army," Rigell told POLITICO. "The point is here is we have to challenge this basic premise that's dangerously permeating Washington and really throughout America that it's the president's prerogative alone. It's not. The use of that much force should be a judicious collaborative decision."
Rigell, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, called engagement in the Middle East a "quagmire."
"It's a quagmire military, it's a conundrum politically a cauldron of confusion. This is a region that is just inherently unstable," Rigell said. "The idea of injecting, inserting U.S. troops -- I haven't seen anything yet that reaches that level."
Even prominent think tanks are keeping their powder dry. The powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee has kept largely silent on the issue in the past few weeks and declined to comment on whether the U.S. should get more involved.
There are lawmakers who are eager to see some involvement.
"I think the right course of action now is for the president to acknowledge the commitment, acknowledge what took place and to deal with it in a comprehensive way," said Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), an Army veteran on the Intelligence Committee.
Asked for clarification, he said he was "ambiguous intentionally," because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Pennsylvania's Casey added that most members of Congress don't have access to classified intelligence -- particularly with lawmakers are back home over the August recess. Still, he said the public information is troubling enough to propel Congress to act.
Asked if he believed his position could garner a majority support in Congress, Casey said: "My gut tells me that there would be a majority support, but not overwhelming. I wouldn't say there is. Part of that is understandable because of where we've been the last decade.
He added, "A lot of people don't want to go down this path at all. But I think we ignore it at our peril especially because of the involvement of the Iranian regime and Hezbollah."
Manu Raju contributed to this report.