By Mike Lillis - 09/14/13 09:51 PM EDT
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Saturday cheered a newly cut deal between the United States and Russia to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons without force, but she's also stressing the need to hold Syria's feet to the fire if the agreement is to work.
"The firm and united response agreed upon today to end Syria’s deadly use of chemical weapons was only made possible by a clear and credible threat of the use of force by the United States."
Pelosi had been among the loudest congressional proponents of Obama's initial plan to launch military strikes in response to Bashar Assad's alleged use of chemical arms on civilians last month. The offer this week by Russian leaders to help secure those weapons by non-military means has put that plan on hold – and may preclude it entirely – but Pelosi has emphasized the importance of retaining the option to retaliate if Assad fails to comply. It's a message she amplified on Saturday.
"It is significant that this agreement will allow for enforcement under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter in the event the regime does not comply," she said.
That reference is to charter language empowering the United Nations Security Council to apply economic sanctions, or use military force, in response to "the existence of any threat to the peace."
The deal between the U.S. and Russia states that the U.N. Security Council "should impose measures under Chapter VII" if Syria fails to comply with the terms.
The issue surfaced repeatedly Saturday morning as Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced their deal after several days of negotiations in Geneva. But there were suggestions that the two negotiators might disagree about the practical effect of the Chapter VII language.
Kerry said that the U.N. Security Council "will" respond if Assad breaks the deal, only to be corrected by Lavrov, who's emphasizing the "should."
"That’s the language, [the U.N.] will impose measures commensurate with whatever is needed in terms of the accountability," Kerry said, according to the State Department transcript.
"Should, should," Lavrov interjected.
"Should," Kerry conceded. "And as Sergey knows, under any circumstances, there would be a debate in the Security Council."
Earlier in their press conference, Lavrov had downplayed any threat of force contained in the deal.
"There is nothing said about the use of force – not about any automatic sanctions," Lavrov said. "All violations should be approved in the Security Council convincingly."
Russian leaders have strongly opposed U.S. military strikes on Syria, and past efforts by the U.N. Security Council to hold Assad to account have failed at the hands of Russia and China, Syria's strongest allies.
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have not overlooked those dynamics, and are urging wary rank-and-file members to back Obama's call for unilateral military strikes – if the diplomatic plan sinks and the president deems them necessary.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, emphasized Friday that neither he nor Pelosi "believe that the president is required to come to Congress in this instance and he could act on his own."
"The Syrians ought not to take comfort in this sort of political reporting about votes," Hoyer told Bloomberg TV's Al Hunt.
Still, in the absence of the U.N.'s approval to use force – and in the face of widespread public opposition to unilateral strikes – many experts say Obama would benefit if Congress had his back.
Hoyer conceded as much on Friday.
"I would hope that we could pass such a resolution," he said.