Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Monday criticized the White House's draft resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria as "too open-ended" and predicted it "will not pass as written."
While the senior Vermont senator said he hoped Congress would narrow the scope of the resolution, he expressed ambivalence as to whether he could support even a whittled-down version.
"I don't know the answer to that — and I'm trying to be as honest as I can. I have no question that the use of chemical weapons is heinous and contrary to everything since the Geneva Conventions," he said. "What I worry about is what happens next."
Leahy's comments came two days after President Obama abruptly reversed course and said he'd seek Congress' approval before launching retaliatory air strikes in response to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons late last month.
Leahy hailed Obama's decision to seek Congress' imprimatur, saying that, no matter the war or the president, "The point is, you need to go to Congress."
But after flying back to D.C. for a classified briefing in the Capitol on Sunday, Leahy told reporters assembled outside that the White House draft was "too open-ended" and would be amended in the Senate.
Leahy elaborated on those comments Monday morning, telling Seven Days that the resolution as written could empower the president to send ground troops to Syria — or elsewhere.
"It's the breadth of what he can do [under the draft resolution] that's the biggest concern now. I mean, there's nothing to stop sending military into Syria or into other countries. See, that's the concern. It's too open-ended. And I've told the White House this. But having said that, I'm not the only one who's told them. They're hearing it from everybody."
Leahy said that the roughly 100 members of Congress assembled for Sunday's briefing appeared to accept the U.S. intelligence community's belief that Assad carried out chemical attacks on his own people. But he said there was "a very strong, bipartisan consensus — it sort of went across the political definition from the right to the left — that the resolution was too broad, if the intent was to go after the chemical weapons with air attacks."
For that reason, among others, Leahy said the president faces an uphill battle in selling the strikes.
"I don't know if he has the votes to get it through Congress. He certainly does not have the votes to get through the resolution as written. I mean, that is clear," Leahy said, adding, "Whether something can be drafted that can be passed, I don't know."
Though Leahy typically allies himself with the president, he sounded genuinely unsure about whether he could back even a scaled-back resolution authorizing the use of force against the Assad regime. On the one hand, he said, "anyone's heart would have to go out" to the victims of the gassing — but on the other hand, "our hearts should go out for all the people who have died needlessly already" in the two-year-old civil war.
"The question is, if we take military action, what's next? What are the ramifications around the rest of the area?" he said. "I worry that the law of unintended consequences comes into play, as it did [in Afghanistan and Iraq]."
He added, "I have no problem with the idea of stopping the use of chemical weapons, but before I could vote for anything, I need a far better idea of where it stops."
Vermont's other two congressional delegates, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), were on vacation over the holiday weekend and unavailable to the press, members of their respective staffs said.
In a written statement released Saturday, Sanders called Assad's use of chemical weapons "inhumane and a violation of international law" but said he needed "to hear more from the president as to why he believes it is in the best interests of the United States to intervene in Syria's bloody and complicated civil war."
For his part, Welch said in a written statement Saturday that he was "pleased" that Obama had decided to seek congressional approval for the proposed military action, but he refrained from weighing in on how he'd vote on such a resolution.