By Mike Lillis - 09/11/13 05:42 PM EDT
Democratic leaders continued Wednesday to push their lawmakers to back a use-of-force resolution in Syria — despite President Obama's call to delay action on such measures in pursuit of a diplomatic solution to Bashar Assad's chemical weapons.
"If diplomacy fails, we have to continue to explore military options," Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Wednesday after a confidential briefing on the Syria situation with White House officials in the Capitol.
"This is not the time to tell the Russians that you don't have to continue to be serious about this proposal. This is not the time to lose leverage," he added. "This is the time to be all-in on diplomacy. And all-in means continuing to use a robust set of tools and for Congress to exert and use its authority to advance this process."
Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.) agreed. The chairman of the House Democratic Caucus argued that, while the diplomatic approach is far preferable, there remains good reason to be skeptical that Russia and Syria will follow through with their plan to transfer Assad's chemical weapons to international monitors.
With that in mind, he said, Congress should be willing to back Obama's call for military strikes as a last resort.
"We don't need a declaration of war here in Congress, we simply need to support the president in what he's calling for, which is a very limited and narrow strike – military strike – to deter the use of chemical weapons and degrade Assad's capability of using those," Becerra said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Wednesday that he and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) are still planning to introduce their version of a use-of-force resolution, but he emphasized that the measure is just a fall-back "that could be taken up … if and when the president determines that it would be necessary to proceed with that kind of legislation."
"We agree that we should take a pause," Van Hollen said Wednesday. "Our revised resolution would be something on stand-by when the president decided he needed to have that additional pressure behind him to make sure that the [diplomatic] negotiations are successful."
The Van Hollen/Connolly proposal would authorize Obama to use limited force in Syria if the regime uses chemical weapons again, if Obama determines there's no credible plan for confiscating Syria's chemical cache or if Assad fails to sign the international convention condemning chemical weapons.
"The purpose of any military action we take is not about regime change with Assad, but with respect to deterring the future use of chemical weapons," Van Hollen said.
Addressing the nation Tuesday night, Obama argued that Assad's alleged chemical attacks demand an international response – and he did not rule out the possibility of U.S. military strikes. But he also asked Congress to delay any votes on use-of-force measures while he pursues the diplomatic approach he says he's pushing for.
"I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions,” he said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), among the strongest proponents of the use-of-force resolution, characterized Obama's speech as "very helpful" as she left Wednesday's classified briefing.
Still, it remains unclear if the campaign by Democratic leaders is having any broad effect, as many rank-and-file members, weary from a decade of military operations in the Middle East, are wary of Syrian strikes in any event. They're viewing the Russian proposal as the best option – and a reason not to pursue an authorization resolution at all.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), an opponent of the strikes, said the Russian proposal "may turn out to be the best thing to come out of Russia since vodka."
"An imperfect implementation of the Russian proposal is far better than a perfect implementation of an air strike campaign," Sherman said Wednesday. "Our air strikes might degrade, to some degree, 10, 20 percent – 30 percent – of the ability of Assad to use his chemical weapons. The Russian program is aimed at eliminating 100 percent of the weapons, and if it failed to get 100 percent – 90 percent looks real good compared to anything else."
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), another strike skeptic, also welcomed Obama's push to delay congressional action, saying he's hopeful the Russian proposal precludes the need for any such vote.
"If these chemical weapons can be secured and then disposed of we won't have deterred or discouraged their future use, we will have prevented it, which is a better result," he said. "If this is successful then we won't need [a vote]. Mission accomplished."
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) gave Obama credit for "single-handedly" easing the tensions surrounding Syria and "slowing down" the rush to intervene. But the Maryland Democrat remains undecided on whether to back a use-of-force resolution if it does come up for a vote.
"I'm hoping that this [Russia] proposal will bear fruit," he said.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), an opponent of Obama's plan for military strikes, said the president's speech did little to sway the opinion of most Democrats.
"I think it's set," she said of the lawmakers' thinking.
Shea-Porter declined to comment on what would happen if, at Obama's urging, a resolution vote came to the floor later in the month.
"Where we are right now is the right place to be," she said. "We'll comment next week on next week's news."