President Barack Obama said Monday that Congress may have more time to consider a strike in Syria, given that country’s apparent newfound willingness to give up its chemical weapons.
“I don’t anticipate that you would see a succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future,” Obama told ABC News. “So I think there will be time during the course of the debates here in the United States for the international community, the Russians and the Syrians to work with us and say, ‘Is there a way to resolve this?’”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced Monday that he would hold off on scheduling a test vote on a use-of-force resolution in order to give the president more time to make his case to the country and to lawmakers.
The outcome of a Congressional vote remains uncertain at best, and even Obama declined to predict a win.
“I wouldn’t say I’m confident,” Obama told NBC News in one of six network interviews he gave as he tries to rally the country. The interviews aired Monday evening and come amid dismal polling for another military action.
Obama sounded both hopeful and skeptical that the new proposal by Russia to have Syria give up its chemical weapons to avert a strike was real.
“I think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially,” he told NBC. “But between the statements that we saw from the Russians — the statement today from the Syrians — this represents a potentially positive development. We are going to run this to ground. [Secretary of State] John Kerry will be talking to his Russian counterpart.”
The president told ABC: “Let’s see if we can come up with language that avoids a strike but accomplishes our key goals to make sure that these chemical weapons are not used.”
With Obama scheduled to appear at both the Democratic and Republican party lunches Tuesday and the situation in flux in Syria, Reid pushed off the timeline.
“I think what we need to do is make sure that the president has the opportunity to speak to all 100 senators and all 300 million American people before we do this,” the Nevada Democrat said. “When we get on this, we’re going to have this in a manner that is dignified and move forward in a way that’s expeditious, yet one that’s thorough.”
Reid said he hoped to move forward without having to go through the procedural steps just to start the debate. Earlier, Reid gave a passionate floor speech in support of sending a signal to Bashar al-Assad and others about the use of chemical weapons.
Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Corker, one of the authors of the use-of-force resolution said before Reid’s announcement that it wasn’t clear how long the Senate could be debating the issue.
“Candidly, I’d be surprised” if debate finished this week, the Tennessee Republican told reporters. “We could, but it would surprise me.”
Corker added that the military was refining plans for a strike at any point in the future, knowing that Assad is moving forces and weapons around the country.
The apparent delay comes as an increasing number of senators announced opposition to the use of force resolution, at least as currently drafted. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III went further, saying he would oppose limiting debate at the end of work on the underlying resolution unless changes are made.
Obama took credit for getting Syria and Russia to budge.
“I think what we’re seeing is that a credible threat of a military strike from the United States, supported potentially by a number of other countries around the world has given them pause and makes them consider whether or not they would make this move. And if they do, then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough,” he said.
He continued the theme on CBS. “We need to keep the pressure on and tomorrow I’ll have the opportunity to explain to the American people just why it is that this chemical weapons ban is so important,” he said, referring to his prime time address Tuesday night. He said keeping the norm against chemical weapons would ultimately protect U.S. troops on the battlefield and make it less likely that chemical weapons get in the hands of terrorists.
Corker also credited the threat of force for getting Russia and China to budge. “While at this point I have healthy skepticism that this offer will change the situation and it will be several days before we can fully determine its credibility, I do know that it never would have been floated if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had not approved the authorization for the use of force last week,” he said in a statement.
Obama, for his part, repeatedly dismissed the capability of the Syrian regime to retaliate against the United States.
“Syria doesn’t have significant capabilities to retaliate against us,” he said on NBC. “Iran does. But Iran is not going to risk a war with the United States over this. Particularly given that our goal here is to make sure that chemical weapons are not used on children.”