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Congress in Pause Mode on Syria

Congress in Pause Mode on Syria

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - September 10, 2013

A week after President Obama asked Congress to promptly authorize missile strikes against Syria, lawmakers are in pause mode -- at their commander-in-chief’s behest. With unexpected diplomatic efforts developing over the past two days, Congress’ role going forward is suddenly in limbo.

Obama met with Senate Democrats and Republicans Tuesday afternoon ahead of his prime-time speech to the nation -- which was originally intended to drive Congress and the public to back his call for strikes. In light of Russia’s offer to help Syria relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile to international hands, the dynamic has changed considerably for Congress.

The president asked lawmakers Tuesday afternoon to hold off on a vote, but to keep the option of military force on the table to maintain the pressure that apparently opened the door to a diplomatic alternative in the first place.

“He wants to keep his finger on the pulse, if you will, and on the trigger, if needed,” Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin told reporters.

And so the Senate, which scrapped a scheduled vote this week on authorizing military force, is going to “pause to see the credibility of what has been discussed,” Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said after an hour-long meeting with the president.

“I don’t think we need to rush out with our hair on fire,” Corker said. “I would be very surprised to see a vote on the Senate floor in the short term.”

The president left the Capitol pledging that “his administration would spend the days ahead pursuing this diplomatic option with the Russians and our allies at the United Nations,” a White House official said. France and the United Kingdom are supportive of this effort. The U.N. is also expected to release a formal report on its investigation into chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime. In addition, lawmakers will be watching John Kerry, who lobbied them last week to approve the strikes; the president has dispatched his secretary of state to Geneva, Switzerland, to meet with Russia’s foreign minister to discuss a possible deal, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Obama’s “bottom line” request to lawmakers was “to not have us undercut his military power,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican from the president’s home state -- who added that he concurred in that regard. “It’s probably an evolution for a left-wing Democrat to acknowledge the credible use of military force is the sole reason for a possible diplomatic solution.” These developments appear to be providing the president with a needed life raft on Syria, as congressional and public opposition to using military force is running high and the clock is ticking. Obama probably wouldn’t have the votes to pass the strikes resolution anyway, but he still has last week’s Foreign Relations Committee backing as a threat.

Lawmakers are skeptical about President Vladimir Putin’s offer, and there have already been obstacles. Russia backed out of a meeting it scheduled Tuesday with the Security Council to talk about the plan.

Still, many are relieved to have an alternative on the table without having to take the difficult vote involving a potential for war and resulting backlash from the public. 

“There is hope, but not yet trust, in what the Russians are doing,” Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters after the meeting. “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, and there’s a large view we should let that process play out for a little while.”

It’s a remarkable landscape shift for lawmakers after several days of hours-long huddles with administration officers behind closed doors, pressure from the president for a vote, and the deluge of constituent responses passionately opposing military action. By Tuesday, affirmative votes for the strike in the Democratic-led Senate appeared elusive: Four Republicans (including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) and two Democrats announced they would not support the use of force against Syria.

But instead of focusing on votes, the Senate is now recalibrating its efforts to include the Russian offer. A bipartisan group of eight senators was drafting language Tuesday for a new resolution that would ask for the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution saying Syria used chemical weapons in the civil war there, and require the U.N. to remove the weapons by a specified date. If those requests were not met, American military force would be authorized, according to a Senate aide with knowledge of the proposal.

Manchin and fellow Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp have also drafted a resolution that would hold off military action for 45 days to allow for a diplomatic process to play out before letting the president use the War Powers Act as a shield to go forward with any strikes. They distributed it to lawmakers at the lunch meeting with Obama.

Sen. Carl Levin, the Armed Services chairman who is also working on the resolution, said the new approach would keep the pressure on Syria and Russia to follow through with ceding control of the chemical weapons. But he said the president made clear that the option to use force must remain.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid agreed, saying, “It's really important to remember that Syria has an extremely, extremely low level of credibility.” Reid said lawmakers discussed new resolutions with the president, and that there was no timeline for congressional action. “It's important we do this well, not quickly,” Reid said.

The president opened each of his meetings with lawmakers by showing a video depicting the chemical-weapon deaths in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, according to Reid.

Participants described the meetings as cordial, sober, and respectful. “There was no Mike Lee or Rand Paul battle in the room,” Kirk said, referring to two Republicans typically opposed to the president’s agenda, and opposed to military action in this case. Paul told reporters that he conveyed to Obama that he would object to the president going ahead with strikes if Congress votes down his plan.

The president also spoke about the difficult politics of military action. He “acknowledged that the polls were against this operation, and said the polls aren’t going to change. ‘I’m good, but not that good,’” Kirk said, quoting the president. “Everybody took that as a good dose of political reality.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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