Lawmakers Tack Toward Diplomacy on Syria

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander speaks to reporters in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, about his decision to oppose a limited military strike in Syria.  
National Journal
Michael Catalini, Stacy Kaper, Elahe Izadi and Billy House
Michael Catalini Stacy Kaper Elahe Izadi Billy House
Sept. 10, 2013, 5:17 p.m.

Law­makers are mov­ing away from tak­ing a dif­fi­cult vote on au­thor­iz­ing the use of force in Syr­ia and ex­press­ing op­tim­ism — some­times cau­tiously — that a dip­lo­mat­ic solu­tion could re­place a U.S. mil­it­ary strike.

The dip­lo­mat­ic es­cape route be­ing paved by Pres­id­ent Obama, which in­volves Syr­ia sur­ren­der­ing its stock­pile of chem­ic­al weapons, was wel­comed Tues­day by sen­at­ors across the polit­ic­al spec­trum, in­clud­ing those who fa­vor a use-of-force res­ol­u­tion and those who op­pose it. Not­ably ab­sent were the shots at Obama that have char­ac­ter­ized so many con­gres­sion­al de­bates.

“Most of us ap­pre­ci­ate the fact that he asked our opin­ion and he got it, and now he’s tak­ing that ad­vice and shift­ing gears,” said Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der, R-Tenn. “We ought to re­spect the fact that he’s listen­ing to us and try­ing the dip­lo­mat­ic op­tion.”

Obama led sep­ar­ate, closed-door meet­ings with Sen­ate Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans hours be­fore his tele­vised ad­dress Tues­day, telling sen­at­ors that the threat of mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion is what pushed the As­sad re­gime and Rus­sia to come to the table to ne­go­ti­ate a solu­tion. In his ad­dress, Obama said he asked con­gres­sion­al lead­ers to post­pone a vote.

A timeline for what hap­pens next in the Sen­ate — and wheth­er Con­gress will vote on a re­vised res­ol­u­tion, re­flect­ing dip­lo­mat­ic ef­forts or the use of force — re­mains un­clear. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id said that de­vel­op­ments, and not “some ar­ti­fi­cial timeline,” are driv­ing the Sen­ate sched­ule.

“We’re go­ing to con­tin­ue to work on mov­ing for­ward with 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.

What is clear is that any vote on the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee’s au­thor­iz­a­tion seems to be tabled. Re­id delayed a test vote Monday, and law­makers say an­oth­er vote on au­thor­iz­a­tion this week seems un­likely. Mean­while, House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers are await­ing Sen­ate ac­tion be­fore de­term­in­ing their le­gis­lat­ive path.

“I think the le­gis­lat­ive piece is on hold at this point,” said Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er, R-Miss., who said he had planned to vote against the meas­ure. “The pres­id­ent has asked both houses to de­fer, and I think we will.”

While the ad­min­is­tra­tion is now clearly pur­su­ing a dip­lo­mat­ic solu­tion, de­tails of a po­ten­tial deal with Rus­sia and Syr­ia were scant. Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vl­ad­mir Putin said Tues­day that the United States needs to take mil­it­ary ac­tion off the table in or­der to ne­go­ti­ate a deal with Syr­ia, but sev­er­al law­makers re­main con­vinced that keep­ing a mil­it­ary op­tion on the table will be crit­ic­al.

“The fact that Putin wants you to re­move the threat is proof of the fact that only that threat makes this pos­sible for Syr­ia to give up their weapons without mil­it­ary ac­tion,” Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in, D-Mich, said. “[Putin] is fo­cused on that. They’re ob­vi­ously wor­ried about that.”

Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee Chair­man Thomas Carp­er, D-Del., said “a ne­go­ti­ated solu­tion that gets chem­ic­al weapons out of Syr­ia with­in a very short peri­od of time ac­tu­ally en­hances the abil­ity of the pres­id­ent to garner votes to keep the threat of a mil­it­ary op­tion alive.”

Re­pub­lic­ans also kept an open mind about the pro­cess. “I’m cer­tainly will­ing not to bring the res­ol­u­tion to a vote at this point,” Wick­er said. “I think most people of good­will will hope light­ning can strike and a mir­acle will hap­pen, and Bashar As­sad will aban­don his chem­ic­al weapons.”

But skep­ti­cism still re­mains on the Hill re­gard­ing the cred­ib­il­ity of the Rus­si­ans and Syr­i­ans, des­pite Obama’s as­sur­ances that it was “tech­nic­ally pos­sible” for the Syr­i­ans to sur­render their chem­ic­al weapons.

“But it’s the Rus­si­ans, that’s the prob­lem,” Al­ex­an­der said, “and then it’s As­sad, that’s a big­ger prob­lem ac­tu­ally, so we’d have to have an agree­ment with the Rus­si­ans that we could veri­fy.”

Al­tern­at­ives to the use-of-force res­ol­u­tion draf­ted in com­mit­tee were already in the works late Tues­day, al­though it is un­clear wheth­er any will gain trac­tion.

Demo­crat­ic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota have pro­posed a meas­ure to give Syr­ia a 45-day win­dow to agree to give up its chem­ic­al weapons. An­oth­er group of Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors, in­clud­ing John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., have been work­ing on re­vis­ing the ex­ist­ing res­ol­u­tion. “It is an ad­di­tion to the ex­ist­ing lan­guage that came out of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee,” Mc­Cain told re­port­ers. “It would provide spe­cif­ic guidelines and re­quire­ments for the re­mov­al, and pla­cing chem­ic­al weapons un­der in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol.”

Lev­in said he is work­ing on craft­ing lan­guage to the res­ol­u­tion that would con­di­tion the use of force on Syr­ia re­fus­ing to sur­render its chem­ic­al weapons. “I be­lieve that it is use­ful to con­nect the au­thor­iz­a­tion to a re­fus­al on the part of Syr­ia to dis­gorge their chem­ic­al weapons,” he told re­port­ers.

Lev­in said if dip­lomacy fails, he fa­vors back­ing up the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “red line” against the use of chem­ic­al weapons with mil­it­ary force.

“If the ef­fort fails polit­ic­ally, I think there has to be a re­sponse, be­cause you can­not not re­spond to what happened in Syr­ia un­less you are then go­ing to in­crease the risk that someday we are go­ing to face chem­ic­al weapons,” he said. “It is more likely that we will face chem­ic­al weapons here at home and that our troops will face chem­ic­al weapons on the bat­tle­field.”

In the House, some of Obama’s biggest sup­port­ers echoed the sen­ti­ment that a dip­lo­mat­ic solu­tion should be giv­en time.

House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er, D-Md., who like Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., has sup­por­ted the pres­id­ent’s re­quest for an au­thor­iz­a­tion to strike, said Tues­day that the al­tern­at­ive is “worth pur­su­ing.”

“Any such con­sid­er­a­tion needs to be ac­com­plished im­me­di­ately, and by im­me­di­ately, I mean with­in a doable time frame, and I’m talk­ing days and not weeks,” he said. “If it’s simply “¦ a rope-a-dope, a delay, try­ing to duck and bob and weave, then it ought to be re­jec­ted.”

“If it is a ser­i­ous of­fer that, in fact, can lead to veri­fi­able con­trol “¦ and with the ob­ject­ive of de­struc­tion of these chem­ic­al weapons, then it cer­tainly is a use­ful al­tern­at­ive to pur­sue,” Hoy­er said.

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