Obama’s message to Congress on Syria: Give it time and don’t undermine the process

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Senate Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper Terrance Gainer, right, leaves a meeting with congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, where they discussed Syria. On Tuesday night, the president will address the nation on Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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President Barack Obama traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday where he urged senators to provide time for diplomatic discussions regarding Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles by delaying a vote on a resolution authorizing military force, lawmakers said after the meeting.

According to senators who met with Obama — he spoke first to Senate Democrats and then Senate Republicans during private luncheons — the president believes it is necessary to keep the possibility of a U.S. military strike on the table in order to convince the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapons. But he said more time is needed for talks between U.S. officials and the Russian government about an alternative diplomatic solution.

In other words, as Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe paraphrased Obama’s message: “Hang loose. Give me a chance.”

“The president clearly believes that the threat of force is what is moving the crisis along and has produced this new proposal by the Russians,” said Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins after the meeting. “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 would lose some leverage. That’s my interpretation.”

In response, Congress will not to vote on a Syria strike authorization this week, key senators said.

The situation between the United States and Syria has changed drastically and rapidly since Obama announced Aug. 31 that he would seek approval from Congress to launch a military strike on the country, which his administration says was responsible for a chemical attack on its citizens Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 people. Since that time, Obama has dispatched top administration officials to make a case to the public and to lawmakers that the Syrian government should be held accountable for the brutal attack by suffering what they said would be a “limited” air attack on key targets.

Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a measure to authorize force, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday morning said he would conduct a procedural vote as early as Wednesday. Later Monday, however, the Russian government proposed an alternative solution that would require Syria to hand over its chemical arsenal to international authorities. The Syrian government said it was willing to cooperate, and Obama on Monday night said he was “skeptical” but open to discussions.

As those discussions continue, the United States will need both time and the appearance that it is close to the possibility of launching a strike.

In the meantime, senators are crafting new language for a resolution related to Syria that would tie a U.S. strike to Syria’s unwillingness to relinquish its chemical weapons, according to Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“That threat has got to be there, I believe, for them to deliver,” Levin said.

For time time being, it appears lawmakers are willing to give the administration the space and time needed to continue the negotiating process with Syria and Russia, and that includes some Republicans.

“He made what I think is a very practical request,” said Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who voted against the authorization resolution last week. “Try not to undermine the credible threat of military action. That is what I think has moved the process forward, and it is certainly going to be the region’s best protection against Iran as well, which is also part of the equation. I’m happy to do that.”

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