The U.S. Senate backed away from an immediate vote authorizing a military strike against Syria as President Barack Obama sought time for international talks on eliminating that country’s chemical weapons.
Following a pair of private meetings between Obama and Democratic and Republican senators on Capitol Hill today, lawmakers of both parties expressed optimism that diplomacy may avert the need for a unilateral military strike.
Giving the international community “an opportunity to put together a proposal that Russia has suggested is the right thing to do,” California Democrat Dianne Feinstein said after the meeting with Obama. “What he wants us to do, basically, is give him room,” Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada said.
The president, who will speak to the nation from the White House at 9 p.m., asked senators to “keep the threat of credible military action available,” Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware said after the meeting.
Russia’s proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control shifted the debate over Obama’s request for authorization to launch a military strike. The U.S. blames Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the deaths of more than 1,400 Syrians in an Aug. 21 attack.
Faced with growing skepticism from lawmakers and the public about a U.S. strike, Obama asked that a vote planned for as soon as tomorrow be delayed to give the Russian proposal a chance to work. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva Sept. 12.
Obama “would like some time to determine whether this offer is credible,” Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said after the meeting with the president. “And let’s face it, it took us about four or five hours to write the last authorization. It’s not like it’s rocket science.”
The second-ranking Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said it was looking probable that the chamber’s vote on a Syria proposal would slip to next week.
“Our schedule’s being driven by developments that are taking place not by some artificial timeline,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters. “It’s important we do this well, not quickly.”
Reid, who as recently as yesterday called for swift military action and likened the Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus to the Nazi gassing of Jews during World War II, said he would welcome a diplomatic solution.
“I’m not a blood-and-thunder guy, I’m not for shock-and-awe,” Reid said. “If things can be worked out with the international community to get these weapons out of the hands of this madman, then I think that’s what we should do.”
Lawmakers of both parties said Obama didn’t specify a time frame for Senate action.
Michigan Democrat Carl Levin said Obama suggested the Senate could wait “a fairly short period of time where it would be clear whether or not Russia is going to come through” and whether Syria would give up its chemical weapons.
Reid said, “The Assad regime must act and act quickly to prove their offer is real and not merely a ploy to avoid military action.”
Even some of the Senate’s strongest advocates of military action said they were prepared to stand down temporarily. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Armed Services Committee member, said he’s “skeptical” of Russian President Vladimir Putin and that there should be a time limit on collecting chemical weapons.
Still, he said, “if the French and the Russians are really serious about doing something to take these weapons off the table, I’m willing to give it a try.”
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who announced yesterday that he would oppose the use-of-force resolution that the Foreign Relations Committee approved last week, said opponents of that measure appreciate that Obama is “taking that advice and he’s shifting gears.”
“There will probably continue to be conversations about other types of authorizations Congress might give to the president if he asks for it,” Alexander said. “For now I don’t expect there to be any votes on something like that. We’ll let the president see what he can do.”
Several Democrats credited Obama’s call for a military strike for Russia’s move to assist in obtaining chemical weapons from Syria, and stressed that they and Obama think military action should remain as a fallback option.
“He believes that the efforts that are now forming in the international community” are “a direct result of the credible threat of force,” said Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.
Before Obama asked for a delay in considering legislation, a group of senators led by Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York had been working on an alternative proposal.
It would call for a United Nations resolution stating that Assad used chemical arms in the Aug. 21 attack and would set a timetable for the country to turn over the weapons to UN inspectors, according to a person familiar with the Senate talks.
A U.S. military strike would be authorized if the weapons weren’t turned over by the deadline, said the person, who sought anonymity because the negotiations weren’t public.
Meanwhile, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky broke his silence on Syria, saying on the Senate floor today that he opposes the military authorization approved by the Foreign Relations panel. Too many “unanswered questions” remain about the administration’s long-term strategy, he said.
“A vital national security risk is clearly not at play,” McConnell said.
Opposition to authorizing a military strike has been strong in the Republican-controlled House, though Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia endorsed the idea last week.
Obama said yesterday on ABC News that a U.S. attack “absolutely” would be put on hold if Syria followed through on the proposal from its powerful ally.
France will ask the UN Security Council to approve a resolution demanding that Syria place its chemical arms under international control, France Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said today in Paris. The proposal also will call for Assad to be punished for the Aug. 21 attack, Fabius said.