WASHINGTON -- Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Tuesday accused the Obama administration of reducing Congress' role in the authorization process for potential airstrikes on Syria to "constitutional theater."
During a hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Paul argued the White House would be "making a joke" of Congress if it left open the possibility that President Barack Obama would proceed with his plan to use military force in the nation even if lawmakers vote against U.S. intervention.
"If we do not say that the Constitution applies, if we do not say explicitly that we will abide by this vote, you're making a joke of us," Paul told Secretary of State John Kerry. "You're making us into theater, and so we play constitutional theater for the president."
"If this is real, you will abide by the verdict of Congress. You're probably going to win," he added. "Just go ahead and say it's real, and let's have a real debate in this country and not a meaningless debate, that in the end you lose and say, 'Oh well, we had the authority anyway, we're going to go ahead and go to war anyway.'"
Kerry was quick to reject Paul's assertion. "Senator, I assure you there's nothing meaningless, and there is everything real," he said.
But Paul pressed on, pointing out that the vote would only make a difference if the White House adhered to the will of its legislative body. Kerry, who had already said earlier in the hearing that he didn't know what Obama would do if Congress voted down a resolution on Syria, once again put the onus on the commander-in-chief.
"I will leave to the man who was elected to be president of the United States the responsibility for telling you what his decision is," he said. "But the president intends to win this vote, and he's not going to make prior announcements."
The Obama administration has been noncommittal on how it will proceed in the unlikely event that Congress doesn't authorize military action in Syria. Shortly after the president announced his intention to seek approval from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, senior administration officials held a briefing with reporters in which they refused to even discuss the possibility that Congress could fail to get behind the president's plan of action.
Kerry repeatedly stressed during appearances on Sunday talk shows that Obama has the right to act in Syria "no matter what Congress does."
Paul said he was "pleasantly surprised" when he first heard Obama was turning to Congress for a vote, only to be dismayed by the idea that he and his colleagues wouldn't necessarily get to determine how the U.S. government ultimately responds to Syrian President Bashar Assad's purported use of chemical weapons.
"I was proud that he was my president. I didn't vote for him, and I still am opposed to him quite a few times, but I was proud that he did this," Paul said. "I was just about to stand on my feet and clap and give him a standing ovation, but then I heard, well, if I lose the vote, I'll probably go ahead and do the bombing anyway. I want to be proud of the president but every time I am just about there, I get word that he doesn't really mean it."
Paul has been one of the most vocal opponents of U.S. military involvement in Syria, and on Sunday he claimed the rebels were aligned with al Qaeda and "attacking Christians." When the president first announced his intent to pursue targeted missile strikes in the region, Paul immediately called for an open debate in Congress and refuted the notion that Obama has the constitutional authority to act unilaterally.