WASHINGTON — Sen. Dean Heller declared Tuesday he would vote against taking military action against Syria for its use of poison gas, saying a U.S. attack could lead to a new war.
Heller’s wariness also extended to a diplomatic initiative being explored at the United Nations that has a goal of Syria giving up its chemical weapons stockpiles while averting a U.S. strike.
That Russian President Vladimir Putin came up with the idea, Heller said, gives further pause.
“When the head of Russia is the former head of the KGB, it’s hard to have a lot of confidence and trust,” Heller said. But, he added, “I would much rather follow some diplomatic solution than shoot warning shots.”
In a meeting with Senate Republicans in the U.S. Capitol, President Barack Obama asked to be “given some room” to deal with the chemical weapons that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used in an attack that U.S. officials say killed 1,400 people in his country’s civil war last month.
Talking with reporters afterward, Heller said he encouraged the Obama administration to follow up on what the Russians have presented, “but outside of that I am just very concerned.”
“It would be very difficult for me to take it a step further,” said Heller, who had been leaning against authorizing a military strike and cemented his opposition earlier Tuesday.
“I do not believe a strategic attack on Syria is in the best interest of the United States at this time,” Heller said in a statement announcing his position.
“Any strategic attack has the potential to become an act of war, and should be treated as such. Before I vote to put members of Nevada’s families in harm’s way, a full justification for war must be provided.”
Speaking with reporters, Heller said he senses war fatigue among Nevadans.
“I’ve been in parade routes in Elko, Winnemucca, Fallon, and that’s all they’re yelling: ‘Stay out of Syria,’” he said.
Dropping off his youngest daughter at college, he said it struck him the United States has been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan since she was in second grade, about 10 years.
Congress is considering a resolution that would authorize Obama to use military force against Syria. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada postponed a procedural vote that had been expected for Wednesday, saying the delay would allow time for the international talks to take shape.
“If there is a realistic chance to secure Syria’s chemical weapons and prevent further atrocities by the Assad regime, we should not turn our backs on that chance,” Reid said Tuesday. “The Senate should give these international discussions time to play out, but not unlimited time.”
Reid, who said in a speech Monday the U.S. had a moral responsibility to act against the use of chemical weapons, said Obama should get credit if diplomacy works to defuse the crisis. Obama met with Senate Democrats at the Capitol for about 90 minutes Tuesday before walking down the hall to meet with Republicans.
“It is important to understand that the only reason Russia is seeking an alternative to military action is that President Obama has made it clear that the United States will not fear to act,” Reid said. “Our credible threat of force has made these diplomatic discussions with Syria possible. The United States should not withdraw that threat.”
Reid told reporters that while talks take place, the threat of U.S. action should remain on the table.
“We’re going to continue to work moving forward on this but keeping pronounced — and I pronounce it now — that the credible threat of our doing something about this attack is going to remain,” Reid said.
A bipartisan group of senators were crafting a reworked congressional resolution calling for a U.N. team to remove the chemical weapons by a set deadline and authorizing military action if that doesn’t happen.
Heller said he was studying a new resolution, but “I’m not certain that there is a real solution there.”
“I’m just concerned that anything we do right now is considered an act or war,” he said.
If another nation fired shots at the United States, “we would declare an act or war, even if it was a shot across the bow.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., also came out Tuesday against the use of force on Syria, charging Obama appears to lack a strategy, and that is “unnerving and embarrassing.”
“It is my hope that the latest diplomatic developments take the military option off the table,” Amodei said. “But in the meantime, the administration’s handling of this and other foreign policy concerns does little to inspire trust and confidence.”
Amodei said the Obama administration has a “leadership vacuum” on Syria, “which is apparently being filled by Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
“The country is divided when it comes to many issues, but it is clear Nevadans and their fellow Americans are united in opposition to the Administration’s much-discussed plans to strike Syria,” Amodei said in a statement.
Heller and Amodei joined Republican Rep. Joe Heck in opposing the use of military force against Syria. Reid has come out in favor of a strike. Nevada Democrats Steven Horsford and Dina Titus have not yet declared a position.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.