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.