WASHINGTON – A Senate panel on Wednesday afternoon voted to give President Obama the authority to use military force in Syria, giving more momentum to the White House plan to punish Syrian President Bashir Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons.
But in an unexpected twist, Senator Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, voted “present,” choosing not to register his position on the highest-profile issue to come before him since he was sworn in.
The measure in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations passed by a 10-to-7 vote.
The resolution, which now heads to the full Senate for a vote next week, would authorize a limited military strike against Syria. The strike could not exceed 90 days, and no American ground troops can be sent for combat missions.
Markey’s decision to vote “present” meant that he did not support the cause being pushed aggressively by President Obama – and by Secretary of State John Kerry, who for nearly three decades held the Senate seat that Markey now occupies.
Markey said that the resolution was too broadly written and allowed for the potential that the United States would become far more entangled in the Syrian conflict.
“My one concern is that we not get on a slippery slope — that we understand all of the steps that this action could lead to,” he said in an interview. “It’s about the resolution being too broad. It’s about the need for more information. It’s about my worry about a greater involvement in Syria.”
Asked why he didn’t just oppose the authorization, as did some of his colleagues who had similar concerns, he said, “A ‘no’ vote would have indicated I had sufficient information on which to base the decision. Which I did not.”
It was a striking statement, given that he essentially suggested that Kerry — his longtime colleague — has not yet been persuasive enough to earn his vote.
“Many of the members were satisfied. I was not,” Markey said. “The resolution was completely rewritten yesterday with many changes and I want to make sure what we vote for on the Senate floor is something that reflects the values of the people of Massachusetts.”
Markey said that over the next several days, he planned to examine more classified intelligence and consult with more experts.
“I want to make sure I make an informed, correct vote,” he said. “The people of Massachusetts expect their senators to have analyzed all the facts, and I want to make sure I have all the facts before I cast that vote.”
The resolution triggered heated debate in the committee. Supporters argued that the United States had to send a message to Syria.
”Failure to respond to such a blatant violation of longstanding international norms not only signals an acceptance of this atrocity, it also jeopardizes the lives of our service members in combat both today and in the future,” Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said in a statement. “For years, countries have refrained from using chemical weapons on our service members because of this international standard and for their safety, we must continue to defend this principle.”
But opponents of the resolution argued that striking Syria may only bring about further turmoil in the volatile Middle East.
“I remain unconvinced that the use of force proposed here will work,” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said in a statement. “The only thing that will prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in the future is for the Syrian people to remove him from power. The strike the administration wants us to approve I do not believe furthers that goal. And in fact, I believe U.S. military action of the type contemplated here might prove to be counterproductive.”
Markey had called on the White House last week to seek approval from Congress before any military action. He told the Globe last week that he would support “a surgical set of strikes” if they were made against the sites that could be used to launch the chemical weapons.
“I think it is important for the United States to make this statement and to be a leader on this issue,” he said in an interview.
Later, after Obama announced his decision to seek congressional support, Markey sounded more noncommittal.
“The aftermath of a US strike on targets in Syria is difficult to predict, with negative consequences that may be beyond our capability to control,” Markey said in a statement on Saturday.
He provided few clues with how he was leaning on Tuesday, when he questioned Kerry during hearings before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
“I continue to look forward to additional evidence being presented and my hope is we can act in a way that does not bog us down into the middle of a Syrian civil war,” he said.
He also asked Kerry to help declassify more information to help the public learn more about the situation. Kerry responded that the administration had already taken unprecedented steps to declassify information but didn’t want to release details that would reveal intelligence sources.
Those voting in favor of the resolution on Wednesday afternoon were seven Democrats and three Republicans. Those voting against were two Democrats and five Republicans.
Markey was the only committee member who abstained from the vote, but he vowed to make a decision by next week.
“I will be casting a ‘yea’ or a ‘nay’ on the senate floor next week,” he said.Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.