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It's hard to imagine a rookie senator who's better equipped to confront a complicated issue like Syria than Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey.
Before winning a Senate special election in June, Markey served for nearly four decades in the House, and he's a recognized policy heavyweight in the halls of Congress. Yet when it came time for him to cast a critical committee vote Wednesday on the use of force in Syria — the most important vote of his brief career in the Senate — Markey essentially took a pass. He voted "present," making him the only one of 18 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to dodge a "yes" or "no" vote.
Predictably, Markey is taking a public beating for his nonvote vote.
"It was HARDLY a profile in courage for the relatively new senator," wrote First Read, NBC's political blog.
The New Republic — which tagged its story under the topic "spinelessness" — concluded: "Syria may be an unsuitable debut for Markey, but he fumbled it royally."
In a statement, Markey explained his thinking:
"Before casting such a monumental vote, I need to review all of the relevant classified materials relating to this matter before I make a decision as important as authorizing the use of military force. The people of Massachusetts expect their representatives to have analyzed all of the facts prior to making a decision of this magnitude.
"I am concerned about the unintended consequences of a U.S. military attack on Syria and the potential that such a strike could lead, over time, to the entanglement of our brave service men and women in an intractable Syrian civil war.
"The resolution as currently drafted contains language that could be interpreted as expanding the scope of the U.S. military action beyond merely the degradation and deterrence of Assad's chemical weapons capability."
In the run-up to the committee vote, Markey had expressed his support for limited "surgical" strikes and made clear that he did not want to see troops on the ground. So his explanation for sitting out the vote didn't deviate far from his public position on Syria.
But many of his colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, shared his concerns and still managed to cast up-or-down votes.
Markey's vote was all the more puzzling given the circumstances of his election: He won the Senate seat previously held by John Kerry, who stepped down in January to become President Obama's secretary of state. On Tuesday, Kerry had appeared before the committee to make the administration's case for military strikes by U.S. forces in response to Syrian President Bashar Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons.
In December, Kerry was effusive in his praise for his possible Senate successor: "Ed's one of the most experienced and capable legislators in the entire Congress and it would be an almost unprecedented occasion for such an accomplished legislator to join the Senate able to hit the ground running on every issue of importance to Massachusetts."
When the measure returns to the Senate floor next week — it was approved by the committee on a 10-7 vote — Markey has promised he'll take a stand. "I will be casting a 'yea' or a 'nay' on the Senate floor next week," he told The Boston Globe.