WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama urged senators Tuesday to help him seek a diplomatic response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons but said he wants Congress to maintain the threat of force.
The president spent more than two hours on Capitol Hill in closed door sessions to lay out his rationale for seeking authorization for a military strike against Syria.
“It was a good conversation,” Obama told reporters, after meetings with both Democratic and Republican senators.
Lawmakers emerged from the talks saying Obama was urging a pause to congressional action in order to let diplomatic efforts work at the United Nations, where the Security Council is mulling a Russian initiative for international inspectors to secure and then destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.
Obama has agreed to test the viability of Russia’s plan, which Damascus supports, and which could head off contentious votes in Congress, where lawmakers remain skeptical of a military strike on Syria.
Senator John Hoeven said Obama told Republicans he was “essentially” seeking a delay to contentious looming use-of-force votes in Congress.
“He still wants approval for a strike, and I think myself and members of Congress are not ready to provide that approval,” Hoeven told AFP. “We think that diplomatic means should be pursued, and he’s indicating he is working on diplomatic means.”
Senator Susan Collins, a Republican who often crosses the aisle to work with Obama but who has expressed reservations about a Syria strike, said the president was worried that a failed vote in the Senate could hamstring UN efforts.
“I think he is very concerned that Congress not undercut that ability for him to threaten force, which obviously if he got a negative vote in the Senate, he feels that he would lose some leverage,” she said.
Number two Senate Republican John Cornyn tweeted that Obama had asked for “time to vet Russian proposal on Syrian chemical weapons; no votes on authorization likely this week.”
Obama’s visit to Congress came as a bipartisan group of Senators including John McCain, his 2008 rival for the White House, crafted a new measure tying authorization for a military strike on Syria to action by the United Nations.
The lawmakers were altering a resolution currently under debate which would green-light limited US strikes to punish President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
A Senate aide said the new measure would require an immediate start to the transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile to international control.
Use of military force would be authorized if a UN Security Council resolution failed or if conditions for the resolution were not being met along a specified timeline.
But Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an author of the new text, was not keen to ram it through.
“I don’t think we need to rush out with our hair on fire right now,” he said. “For a short period of time our best course of action is to pause, to understand whether this is credible or not. But I think the authorization of military force absolutely needs to remain on the table, otherwise I don’t think these negotiations will go anywhere.”
Top Senate Democrat Harry Reid agreed, saying the threat of U.S. military action must remain genuine.
“The president of the United States has made it very clear that we will act if we must, and that’s a message he gave us,” Reid said.
But Reid acknowledged that he was looking toward the UN as a possible resolution to the crisis with Assad.
“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.”
Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who came out this week against the use of force in Syria, was cautiously optimistic about UN diplomatic efforts.
“I hope the president is successful in this exploration and we should know that in a week or two,” he told reporters.