Senators, Obama want to delay Syria vote

In Play's Jackie Kucinich is on Capitol Hill, where emotions are high just days before Congress votes on military action in Syria. (The Washington Post)

Senators agreed after meeting with President Obama on Tuesday that they would wait to consider a resolution to authorize the use of U.S. military force against Syria to allow surprise diplomatic efforts to play out in the coming days.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) emerged from a more than hour-long meeting with Obama and Senate Democrats to declare that “Our schedule’s being driven by developments that are taking place not by some artificial timeline that we have here.”

Senators would begin reworking a resolution authorizing military action, Reid said, but added that “we have to make sure that the credible threat of military action remains. It’s important to understand that the only reason Russia is seeking an alternative to military action is that the president of the United States has made it very clear that we will act if we must.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a key GOP supporter of military action against Syria, agreed with Reid, saying: “I think it’s very important for us to keep on the table to ability to use military force, but I think at the same time it’s probably good for us just to take a pause. I see no reason for us to have [our] hair on fire.”

But several lawmakers remained skeptical of overtures from the Russian government made on a day packed with fast-moving developments. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a frequent critic of Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, said that “There is hope, but not yet trust in what the Russians are doing.”

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“But I think there’s a general view, whether people are for it or against it, there’s an overwhelming view that it would be preferable if international law and the family of nations could strip Syria of the chemical weapons,” Schumer said. “And there’s a large view we should let that process play out for a little while.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who is a strong supporter of the resolution against Syria, also distanced himself from the effort to get a U.N.-backed deal that could be verified with the Syrians, suggesting that it might just be a stalling tactic.

“Clearly, diplomacy is always a better outcome than military action. But I will say that I’m somewhat skeptical of those that are involved in the diplomatic discussion today. . . . I’m skeptical of it because of the actors that are involved — simple as that,” Boehner told reporters.

The House has always been the most resistant to military intervention in Syria, and it was unclear early Tuesday whether the Russian proposal and work in the Senate on a plan would be enough to sway skeptical House lawmakers in both parties to support a new congressional resolution — especially if it leaves open the possibility of military action.

With support crumbling on Capitol Hill for a resolution authorizing military strikes on Syria, a bipartisan group of senators began coalescing around a proposal that would call on the United Nations to condemn the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against its people and order U.N. inspectors into the country to recover the weapons.

If the efforts were unsuccessful, the proposal would give Obama the authority to order military strikes, according to Senate aides familiar with the talks.

The group includes Schumer and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), aides said.

McCain first convened some members of the group Monday evening off the Senate floor in hopes of striking a new deal. The mix of senators involved in the talks suggests they could draw sufficient bipartisan support for the resolution and allow lawmakers to cast a vote on the Syria situation without authorizing immediate military action.

McCain said that during his meeting with Senate Republicans, Obama “did a good job of articulating his position and his rationale. I think he made an excellent presentation.”

But the senator said he remains “very skeptical” of the chances for success in reaching a diplomatic resolution and would continue working with senators on an alternative resolution in hopes of winning support from wavering senators who preferred more diplomacy before strikes took place.

Two GOP senators opposed to possible military action, James Risch (R-Idaho) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), said they were open to considering an alternative resolution, depending on how negotiations with Russian officials proceed.

“This is something that everybody on both sides, no matter whether you’re for or against involvement or not, we ought to be hopeful that there could be a peaceful resolution that gets the most dangerous thing in Syria out of Syria,” Paul told reporters. “If the chemical weapons could be gone, it will still be a disastrous atrocity of civilian deaths there and it probably will continue, but then we don’t have to worry about surrounding countries being the victim of weapons attacks, of gas attacks.”

Work on legislative solutions came on a dramatic, fast-moving day during which the White House said that it would “explore seriously the viability” of an unexpected Russian proposal for Syria to transfer its chemical weapons to international control. Obama is also scheduled to address the nation on the topic in a speech Tuesday at 9 p.m. EDT.

Support for a military strike on Syria was diminishing quickly on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Among Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) announced their opposition to military action, while Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a liberal stalwart, said he would vote against the president’s resolution because it is “too broad.”

In his first extended public remarks on the situation, McConnell said Tuesday that “being credible on Syria requires presenting a credible response, and having a credible strategy. And for all the reasons I’ve indicated, this proposal just doesn’t pass muster.”

Paul — a potential 2016 presidential candidate who is seen as an emerging GOP voice on foreign policy — also announced plans to give a speech Tuesday night after Obama addresses the nation. Paul has been one of the leading opponents of airstrikes.

Boehner said his own support for the strikes was built around his philosophy of rallying around a president in overseas endeavors. “I think it’s critically important that when the president goes out on behalf of the American people, that members of Congress do everything they can to be supportive of him,” he said, adding that Obama needs to make a better pitch to voters or else the resolution will fail.

“Clearly, members tend to reflect their constituents. The American people have not been supportive; he’s not made the sale to the American people,” Boehner said.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sought to give Obama an opening to proceed with military strikes, even if Congress rejects his formal request. She noted that President Bill Clinton continued with strikes in Kosovo even after Congress rejected his request for formal authorization.

“It is not necessary for Congress to give the president this authority; we are grateful that he has asked for it,” Pelosi said of Obama. “But if he sees an opportunity, we don’t want the Russians to think that his leverage is diminished because of a vote we may or may not succeed with in the Congress.”

Pelosi said Obama deserves “a great deal of credit” for compelling the Russians to present a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

“I hope that it works,” she told reporters, recalling that White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough told House Democrats in a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning that “if it is serious, if it is credible, if it is real — it will be given every consideration. And that’s good news, I think.”

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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