CHAMPAIGN — U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin declined to say Saturday how he would vote on any military strike against Syria, but he said he welcomed a congressional debate.
And he indicated he would support some kind of response to the charge that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons assault that U.S. officials say killed more than 1,400, including 426 children.
"What does our silence say? That's what we have to debate. If we are silent after what Assad has done, what does it say about the use of chemical weapons and our moral leadership in this world?" Durbin said after a steamy rally in favor of immigration in 97-degree heat at West Side Park. "I think this is a worthy debate for us to engage in. It won't be any easy one. I can't guarantee how it will end."
Durbin drew the line, however, at committing U.S. troops to fighting in Syria, or "boots on the ground."
"We've invaded two Muslim countries in the time I've been in the Senate. I don't want to invade a third," said Durbin, now in his 17th year in the Senate. "I'm not interested in engaging in a new war and committing ourselves to a long-term situation in any country, including Syria, at this point. I would draw that line very clearly."
Both Durbin and U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, praised President Obama's decision, announced Saturday, to seek congressional approval before a military strike.
"I applaud the president's decision to seek congressional authorization for the use of military force in Syria and look forward to hearing from constituents and then debating the issue when we return to Washington," said Davis, whose 13th Congressional District includes Champaign-Urbana.
"I commend the president for recognizing what the Constitution says. The people of the United States through their members of Congress need to debate and to vote on this measure as to what our response will be, if any, to what's happened in Syria," said Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. "There aren't many presidents who have said that. The president said it today, and I thought it was the right thing to say."
Asked if he feared setting a precedent by getting involved in a civil war in a foreign land, Durbin called it "an interesting line to be drawn" by the United States.
"This is new territory for a president to embark on. I can hardly think of many examples in the past quite like this so I think it's time for a fulsome debate under the Constitution as to how far the United States should go.
"My predecessor, Paul Simon, called on President William Clinton to do something, anything, on Rwanda to stop the genocide. They didn't. Eight hundred thousand people died. President Clinton today, reflecting on his presidency, has said over and over again this is the major regret on his part, that he didn't do something to step in to end the bloodshed and end the killing. So there are times in history when the United States, through its leadership, can intervene and literally save lives. This is an example of a similar moral challenge."
When asked what Obama should do if Congress refused to support a military strike, Durbin demurred.
"Let's see what the proposal is that's presented to Congress and then debate it and vote on it," he said. "In terms of what happens after that, the president has to make his own decisions."
In his speech to about 200 people in support of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, Durbin called on Davis to join with Sen. Mark Kirk in backing a new immigration law.
"I hope that Congressman Davis and every other Republican in this delegation will watch Mark Kirk and what he did, and join him making this a bipartisan, Illinois effort for comprehensive immigration reform," Durbin said.
He dismissed Davis' insistence that any new immigration bill include more border security.
"Please don't say we need more border enforcement than the Senate bill (called for)," Durbin said. "Ten years ago there were 10,000 border patrol agents on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Today there are 19,000 border patrol agents and this (Senate) bill will raise it to 40,000 border patrol agents. It will be the fifth-largest standing army in the world, for goodness sakes."