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POLITICS: PennAve

Mitch McConnell: Capitol Hill's last undecided party leader on Syria

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As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted Wednesday on a resolution authorizing U.S. airstrikes in Syria, the chamber's Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, was back home in Kentucky telling constituents he has yet to make up his mind on the issue.

And with the Senate minority leader facing political land mines no matter what decision he makes, McConnell — the last of Congress' top party leaders to remain on the fence on legislation authorizing military action in Syria — is in no hurry to pick a side.

"Certainly we need to be careful about doing it. I don't think anybody supports putting any American military personnel there at all," he told the Bowling Green Rotary Club. "So then that leaves you the question of what kind of impact can you have short of boots on the ground?"

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California have backed President Obama's call for airstrikes in Syria. Their support was expected, as both are loyal party-line Democrats.

And while House Speaker John Boehner's endorsement this week for Obama's plan raised some eyebrows, the Ohio Republican didn't face the same level of political pressure and consequences as confronts McConnell.

The minority leader faces a potentially tough primary challenge next year against Matt Bevin, a libertarian-style populist who says the U.S. should stay out of the Syrian civil war. So siding with Obama on airstrikes risks alienating much of Kentucky's conservative voting base, which even the senator admits is mostly against such a move.

McConnell also is wary of falling on the opposite side of Kentucky's popular junior GOP senator, Rand Paul, who is leading the drumbeat in the Senate against U.S. intervention in Syria. The minority leader acknowledged that Paul has locked up the anti-intervention bully pulpit in the state, and hinted a vote in support of airstrikes wouldn't be easy for him.

"Sen. Paul is going to be the leader to the opposition of this, I think I can accurately state his position, which is probably the position of most of you, that this is not a matter that affects America's national security,"McConnell told the Bowling Green crowd. "He's going to be the leader and the most articulate person for that point of view."

Senate Republicans also are split on how to handle Syria, making McConnell's decision even trickier.

After a White House meeting Tuesday with President Obama, McConnelll pressed the president for more information and "to continue updating the American people" about his plans regarding Syria.

“While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done — and can be accomplished — in Syria and the region," he said.

McConnell may defer making a decision until the full Senate takes up the issue next week. But with Paul on Wednesday vowing not to filibuster the resolution — reversing earlier hints that he might — the minority leader will have to choose a side eventually.

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Sean Lengell

Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner