Obama pushes to delay Congress vote on Syria

Obama pushes to delay Congress vote on Syria

Administration advocating wait-and-see approach to let diplomatic options for safeguarding Syria’s chemical weapons play out; wants military strike to stay on table

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

US President Barack Obama gestures while speaking in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, September 6, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama gestures while speaking in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, September 6, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON — Amid diminishing support for US military action against Syria, President Barack Obama signaled to Congress Tuesday afternoon that he wants to delay House and Senate votes on military engagement. Obama – as well as key Senate Democrats – indicated that they would prefer to delay the critical votes until proposals for a negotiated chemical weapons stand-down make their way through the United Nations.

Obama was originally scheduled to make a last-minute push for public support Tuesday, meeting separately with Congressional Republicans and Democrats in the afternoon before delivering a major speech on Syria to the American people later in the evening.

But after Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparently off-handed remark Monday about Syria agreeing to turn over all of its chemical weapons stockpiles snowballed into a Russian attempt to secure just such an outcome, the administration pulled back on its hope for a quick vote in the Senate.

The new UN involvement in attempts to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons also reinforced the efforts of a bipartisan group of senators who have been working on a compromise plan that will call on the UN Security Council to pass a resolution confirming that Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons – and then send in a UN team to remove the remaining chemical stockpiles in accordance with a strict timeline.

Failure to do so, the Senate draft will propose, will trigger a military strike. This last part of the resolution will allow the Obama administration to save face – and perhaps even still recover a win on the Senate floor – by maintaining that the military option is a critical part of a negotiated settlement.

“We’re going to continue to work moving forward on this but keeping pronounced — and I pronounce it now — that the credible threat of our doing something about this attack is going to remain,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told reporters shortly after meeting with Obama Tuesday. Reid repeatedly emphasized that the Senate would not press to move quickly – but rather correctly – on Syrian engagement, with Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) indicating that a Senate vote would be held next week at the earliest.

Both Obama and Kerry had asserted repeatedly over the previous 24 hours that it is their forceful insistence on a military option that brought Russia and Syria back to the negotiating table.

“What we’re seeing with the Russian proposal and Syrian reaction has only come about because of the threat, the credible threat of US military action,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on television news channel MSNBC.

The exit strategy of postponing a dangerous series of votes for the administration could not have come at a better time for Obama; recent polls have indicated that popular support for a military operation – and for the president in general – has declined as he pushes for a Syrian strike.

An Associated Press survey conducted Monday indicated that the balance of power in the Senate had swung, and that the majority of senators were leaning toward opposing involvement. Polls conducted in the House also seemed to portend an administration defeat – with as high as a 6 to 1 margin against the president’s resolution.

In the course of a week, two polls conducted by Pew Research indicated that popular opposition to military engagement in Syria rose by 15%, while support continued to decline.

Even the staunchly pro-Obama Organizing for Action organization, the successor body to Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign grassroots initiative, has been silent on Syria for the past three weeks, only to break silence Tuesday with a critically non-committal e-mail to supporters.

The organization’s executive director, former White House official Jon Carson, told supporters that “I’ve heard a lot from supporters Syria over the last week. This debate is an important one for our country.”

Without ever mentioning whether members should support the president, Carson said that “For everyone asking for more information, I wanted to make sure you had the chance to hear from President Obama himself. He’s addressing the nation tonight.”

In the Syria-focused e-mail, Carson quickly tried to redirect supporters to more unifying topics, concluding that “there’s a lot to do to pass the agenda Americans voted for last fall – that’s work that we’ll remained focused on. More on that soon.”

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