Obama’s Pleas Draw Mixed Reactions From Hill

President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. President Obama blended the threat of military action with the hope of a diplomatic solution as he works to strip Syria of its chemical weapons.
National Journal
Elahe Izad, Stacy Kaper, Billy House and George E. Condon Jr.
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Elahe Izad Stacy Kaper Billy House George E. Condon Jr.
Sept. 10, 2013, 7:19 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama made an un­usu­ally emo­tion­al pitch to Con­gress and the coun­try Tues­day night, seek­ing to rally sup­port for a strong Amer­ic­an re­sponse to Syr­ia’s use of chem­ic­al weapons, an at­tack he cast as hor­ri­fy­ing, grue­some, and ter­rible.

The re­sponse from Cap­it­ol Hill was swift but fairly pre­dict­able, with many Demo­crats say­ing they heard a mes­sage of strength from the pres­id­ent while Re­pub­lic­ans were largely un­con­vinced that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has a firm handle on the on­go­ing crisis.

Yet law­makers from both parties seized on a small sec­tion of Obama’s 15-minute ad­dress, the few­er than 300 words in a 2,200-word speech that de­scribed Rus­sia’s ef­forts to pro­duce an in­ter­na­tion­al agree­ment re­quir­ing Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad to re­lin­quish his mil­it­ary’s chem­ic­al weapons.

The pres­id­ent an­nounced that Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry will meet on Thursday with the Rus­si­an for­eign min­is­ter, and Obama said he will con­tin­ue his own talks with Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin, a staunch ally of As­sad. He did not say how long he was will­ing to hold off his use of mil­it­ary force, say­ing the armed forces will “re­spond if dip­lomacy fails.”

But, less than a week after he asked Con­gress to au­thor­ize a mil­it­ary strike on Syr­ia, the pres­id­ent an­nounced that he has asked for that vote to be delayed to give dip­lo­mats a chance to pur­sue what he called the prom­ising Rus­si­an ini­ti­at­ive.

The delay gave an al­most un­pre­ced­en­ted twist to an ad­dress that had been planned to press Con­gress to vote quickly on his re­quest. In­stead, Obama used it to make the case for a re­sponse without know­ing if that re­sponse will be mil­it­ary or dip­lo­mat­ic. Based on their in­stant re­sponses Tues­day night, it was clear most mem­bers prefer the lat­ter.

“I sup­port his dip­lo­mat­ic ef­forts to promptly bring Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons ar­sen­al, one of the world’s largest, un­der in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol,” said Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in, D-Mich. “I agree with the pres­id­ent that Syr­ia and Rus­sia would not have raised that pos­sib­il­ity if not for the cred­ible threat of mil­it­ary force.”

Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., said in a state­ment that while he has doubts about “this 11th-hour of­fer, it would be wrong to slam the door shut without due con­sid­er­a­tion.

“A ne­go­ti­ated solu­tion to a crisis is al­ways prefer­able and if this pos­sib­il­ity is le­git­im­ate, I’ll give it ser­i­ous thought,” Men­en­dez said. “At the same time, the cred­ible use of mil­it­ary force is ne­ces­sary to keep on the table.”

Two Sen­ate hawks, however, said Obama isn’t be­ing strong enough in his re­sponse to As­sad’s use of chem­ic­al weapons in Au­gust. Sens. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., and Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., re­leased a joint state­ment say­ing they “re­gret that he did not speak more force­fully about the need to in­crease our mil­it­ary as­sist­ance to mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion forces in Syr­ia, such as the Free Syr­i­an Army.”

“We also re­gret that he did not lay out a clear­er plan to test the ser­i­ous­ness of the Rus­si­an and Syr­i­an pro­pos­al to trans­fer the As­sad re­gime’s chem­ic­al weapons to in­ter­na­tion­al cus­tody,” Mc­Cain and Gra­ham said.

In his speech, the pres­id­ent talked of dip­lo­mat­ic agree­ments and in­ter­na­tion­al con­ven­tions against chem­ic­al weapons. But the law­yer in him took a back seat to the fath­er as he re­peatedly painted a vivid pic­ture of the suf­fer­ing caused by Syr­ia’s Aug. 21 use of sar­in gas against As­sad’s op­pon­ents. Sev­en times in the 15-minute ad­dress, the pres­id­ent spoke emo­tion­ally of the chil­dren who were killed and maimed in that at­tack.

“The im­ages from this mas­sacre are sick­en­ing,” he said. “Men, wo­men, chil­dren ly­ing in rows, killed by pois­on gas, oth­ers foam­ing at the mouth, gasp­ing for breath, a fath­er clutch­ing his dead chil­dren, im­plor­ing them to get up and walk.” Grimly, he urged mem­bers of Con­gress “to view those videos of the at­tack and then ask, what kind of world will we live in if the United States of Amer­ica sees a dic­tat­or brazenly vi­ol­ate in­ter­na­tion­al law with pois­on gas and we choose to look the oth­er way?” Dir­ect­ing re­marks to his own polit­ic­al base, lib­er­als, he asked them to think of “those im­ages of chil­dren writh­ing in pain and go­ing still on a cold hos­pit­al floor, for some­times res­ol­u­tions and state­ments of con­dem­na­tion are simply not enough.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said she is work­ing on an amend­ment for con­di­tion­al use of force. “I’m work­ing with my col­leagues in the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee on an amend­ment to give dip­lomacy a chance to work, but to also pres­sure the Syr­i­ans to take con­crete steps to­wards the trans­fer of their chem­ic­al weapons to in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol,” she said in a press re­lease.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has pro­posed an al­tern­at­ive to the res­ol­u­tion au­thor­iz­ing use of force against Syr­ia that passed out of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee last week, told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily that many of his col­leagues op­pose the pres­id­ent’s em­phas­is on mil­it­ary ac­tion, say­ing “we just re­spect­fully dis­agree that an im­min­ent strike will do any­thing” but cre­ate in­stabil­ity.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she would be will­ing to look at a pro­pos­al to re­quire Syr­ia to turn over its chem­ic­al weapons that has clear bind­ing pro­to­cols to se­cure all the coun­try’s chem­ic­al weapons, and veri­fy their de­struc­tion. But she ex­pressed con­cerns that the pres­id­ent lacks a long-term strategy for the Middle East.

“I re­main con­cerned and I know many Alaskans agree that this ad­min­is­tra­tion does not have a co­her­ent strategy for the re­gion,” she said in a state­ment. “The pres­id­ent needs to clearly ar­tic­u­late how this Syr­ia plan lines up with any broad­er vis­ion for the Middle East and how our na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests are pro­tec­ted.”

In the House, Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., called the pres­id­ent’s ad­dress “a prin­cipled present­a­tion to the Amer­ic­an people as to how the As­sad re­gime’s use of chem­ic­al weapons im­pacts our na­tion­al se­cur­ity and why the re­gime must be held re­spons­ible.”

Re­pub­lic­an Reps. John Kline of Min­nesota and Vern Buchanan of Flor­ida re­mained un­moved in op­pos­ing Obama’s re­quest for mil­it­ary strikes in Syr­ia. “The pres­id­ent’s re­marks to the na­tion once again fell short of provid­ing a clear ra­tionale for mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion,” Kline said.

Buchanan also said he re­mained op­posed to mil­it­ary ac­tion, but ad­ded, “I do, however, agree with the pres­id­ent that Rus­sia’s pro­pos­al to ad­dress Syr­ia through dip­lo­mat­ic ne­go­ti­ations should be thor­oughly ex­plored.”

House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., had no im­me­di­ate re­sponses to the pres­id­ent’s ad­dress Tues­day night, aides said.

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