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The state’s junior senator reflected late last week on an important vote against intervention in Syria despite a phone call from President Obama asking him to reconsider his opposition.
“He clearly wanted me to change my mind,” U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy said about his conversation with Obama. “He was very respectful. At no time did I sense any arm twisting. There has never been a moment when I didn’t understand the other side.”
But in the end, the men agreed to disagree and Murphy was one of two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to vote against authorization of military force in Syria. The authorization question now goes before the whole Senate.
Murphy has served on the Foreign Relations Committee since he was sworn into office in January. Syria’s civil war and human rights violations have been investigated and discussed among members long before the Aug. 21 chemical attacks on the Syrian people.
“Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the people of Syria is a human rights atrocity and a blatant violation of international law,” Murphy said after his vote. “It’s impossible to see the horrific images of death and suffering in Syria and not feel compelled to act in some way. But there is not always an American solution to every international crisis.”
This week, Murphy spent a lot of time with Secretary of State John Kerry, who presented the case for U.S. involvement in an open committee session on Tuesday, and in debates and private conversations on Wednesday before the committee vote.
“This is one of those weeks that gets gobbled up with one issue,” Murphy said.
He later went on to explain his opposition in several network and cable television interviews.
“It’s never been a goal of mine to be a talk show darling,” Murphy said. “But it’s important to have a national dialogue. I hope my perspective adds something to the debate.”
Murphy has several concerns about U.S. intervention. Despite an apparent moral imperative, there isn’t a clear national security imperative. He said there is little chance that targeted air strikes will destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles and may intensify the response of Assad and those countries financing him, putting more Syrian lives in danger and the country in chaos.
Murphy is also reluctant to arm the Syrian rebel movement and involve the U.S. in a long-term entanglement that may be difficult to leave.
The committee voted 17-10 in favor of the authorization. Murphy was joined by unlikely ally Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in voting against the measure. Murphy was quick to say any alliance with the conservative Republican goes no deeper than this single issue.
He said he understands the desire to respond militarily given the horrific evidence. That horror is particularly acute in Connecticut where residents have dealt with the slaughter of children since the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school that left 20 children and six teachers dead.
But Murphy said that has to be weighed against the very real possibility that military action will result in further bloodshed for the Syrian people and farther reaching consequences.
“He’s following his conscience,” said Vincent Testa, a member of the Wallingford Democratic Town Committee. “I give him credit for doing what he thinks is right.”
The issue puts all members of Congress in a difficult position and they must listen to their constituents and gather information before making a decision, Testa said.
“The president is well aware that every representative in Congress is faced with a difficult decision, just as the president is,” Testa said. Murphy “is on that committee. I’ll be interested to see what happens when it gets to the House.”
Vincent Avallone, Wallingford Democratic town chairman, said the president was correct to seek congressional authorization.
He believes more information should be disclosed before all of Congress votes. The White House’s previous “red line” comment about the potential use of chemical weapons forced Congress and the American public to wonder how the world would view the U.S. if it didn’t respond militarily after the Aug. 21 attack.
But the repercussions require more thought, Avallone said.
“Personally, I’m inclined to go along with Chris Murphy,” he said.
Ernest DiPietro, chairman of the Democratic Town Committee in Murphy’s hometown of Cheshire, said Congress needs to study the matter thoroughly before voting.
DiPietro said he was intrigued by statements made Thursday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee.
After receiving a closed-door briefing from the CIA on Thursday, Feinstein said she backs Obama’s plan to launch a limited military strike because she’s convinced it’s a very serious situation.
When defending her support later, Feinstein said: “They don’t know what I know. They haven’t heard what I heard.”
DiPietro said members of Congress should have access to all the intelligence gathered so far before making their decisions and espousing opinions.
“Maybe there is some information that has to come forth,” he said.
Murphy’s public opposition may help him politically, said Arthur C. Paulson, chairman of the Political Science Department at Southern Connecticut State University.
“On balance, I think it will help, given that this is a blue state and the general public attitude of the moment toward the proposed military action,” Paulson said.
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