President Obama told Democratic senators Tuesday that he wants to delay a vote on military action against Syria, as the administration presses for a UN resolution forcing Damascus to hand over its chemical weapons.
Obama made a rare visit to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, spending roughly an hour and a half huddled with Senate Democrats behind closed doors, explaining his stance on Syria.
Following the meeting, Obama waved and walked briskly past a throng of reporters on his way to a meeting with Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he agreed with Obama's call to let diplomatic options play out and would put off a vote on the authorization of force against Syria for an indefinite period.
Reid said he wouldn't be held to any “artificial deadline.”
“It's important we do this well, not quickly,” he said. “In the last 24 hours there's been remarkable changes. Let's see what else happens.”
Obama has been pressing lawmakers to authorize a strike on Syria to punish President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians in that country’s civil war. But the president is facing an uphill battle with weak congressional support and polls showing a majority of the public opposes a Syria strike.
Secretary of State John Kerry first floated the idea of giving Assad a last chance to avert a strike by handing over chemical weapons to international inspectors on Monday. The Russian foreign minister quickly seized on the idea and pulled Damascus on board.
Obama welcomed the announcement Monday, saying it could be a breakthrough if Russia and Syria followed through.
Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, heaped praise on Obama for keeping the pressure on Syria and gave him credit for bringing Russia and Syria to the point where she said they are ready to negotiate a diplomatic solution.
“We will give diplomacy a chance to work,” she said. “And I hope that the Russians meant it when they said let's try to resolve that in a way that would result in the absolute destruction of Syria's chemical weapons.”
As Obama was meeting with Democrats, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the proposed diplomatic solution with Syria would only work if the U.S. agrees to take the use of force off the table – a call likely to undercut U.S. support for the plan.
Russia’s foreign ministry also expressed concern about implementing the Syria deal through a binding UN resolution, which Kerry said would be necessary.
President Obama is pressing ahead with a speech Tuesday evening laying out his Syria policy to the public and continuing efforts to lobby senators on possible military action.
Senators urged caution about Russia taking the diplomatic lead on Syria.
“The Russia development -- we're waiting to see if it plays out,” Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., told the Washington Examiner. “We're waiting to see where the beef is -- if they're serious or they're not serious. It's deeds not words that count here.”
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, who voted against the ratification of the new START arms-reduction treaty with the Russians in 2010, said Obama should allow time to let a diplomatic alternative play out despite reservations about Moscow’s credibility.
“Anything is better than pulling the trigger at this point,” he said. “I think this is something that needs to be seriously considered and not dismissed out of hand even though it is the Russians you're dealing with."
“Obama said he wants to make sure that they are serious brokers and serious players and it's not just rhetoric,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., said after meeting with the president.
Manchin, who is writing what he calls a “sensible alternative” to the White House-drafted Syria resolution with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said U.S. distrust of Russia is one of the reasons he doesn't want Moscow brokering the deal.
Manchin said Syria should be forced to sign on to the international chemical weapons treaty.
“I think it should be in the [Chemical Weapons Convention] – and I've said that. Ours is very clear,” he said.
The Manchin-Heitkamp resolution calls for a two-step process.
First, it would give the administration 45 days to secure from Assad a commitment to join those nations who have signed and agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
If Assad fails to comply, then the Senate gives the president full authorization to use whatever means needed to punish Damascus for allegedly using chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack.