By Justin Sink - 09/02/13 08:19 PM EDT
Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) emerged from their Labor Day meeting with President Obama encouraged the administration appeared to be developing a plan for Syria that would degrade the military capabilities of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime while improving the capabilities of rebel forces.
"For the first time, I understand what happens after the smoke clears," Graham said, adding that Obama presented them with a "pretty solid plan to upgrade the opposition."
The suggestion that the administration was developing a broader strategy for Syria clearly appealed to the lawmakers, who both have pushed for more aggressive American intervention in that country's bloody civil war. For the president, McCain and Graham are crucial votes as he attempts to earn congressional authorization for a response to the Assad regime's apparent use of chemical weapons last month.
The pair repeatedly emphasized the consequences of a vote rejecting military action, with McCain warning it would be "catastrophic to the institution of the presidency and the credibility of the United States."
Graham said a vote rejecting a military strike would "surely" send Iran "signals that we don't care about their nuclear program."
"If we lost a vote in Congress dealing with the chemical weapons being used in Syria, what effect would that have on Iran and their nuclear program?" Graham said.
According to a senior administration official, Obama and National Security Adviser Susan Rice stressed in the meeting that the nation was stronger when the White House and Congress "work together to stand up for our national interests."
"The president made clear his view that the failure to take limited action against Assad would unravel the deterrent impact of the international norm against chemical weapons use, would endanger U.S. allies in the region, and would risk emboldening Assad and his allies, Hezbollah and Iran," the official said.
The senators acknowledged that the meeting was a baldly political attempt to recruit them to help lobby on behalf of the president's plan. McCain said that while he didn't know whether a resolution would pass today, his "impression is a lot of people are up for grabs."
"I don't think [the president] called us over because we're old campaign pals," the Arizona senator said.
Still, the Republicans cautioned that the president needed to hold the line on a broader agenda in Syria to retain their support — and their lobbying efforts.
"I'm already talking to a lot of my colleagues, but before I persuade them to support this, I have to be persuaded," McCain said.
McCain added that "a weak response is almost as bad as doing nothing."
That may draw the Republicans into conflict with congressional Democrats, who said over the weekend that they planned to limit the scope of any military action by the Obama administration. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told reporters on Sunday that he would move to change the draft resolution authorizing the use of force circulated by the White House, worrying it was too open-ended.
The outreach to McCain and Graham comes amid what administration officials are calling a "flood the zone" offensive to win over lawmakers to support the strike.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, with Kerry returning to the Hill on Wednesday for a classified hearing with the same panel, as well as a public hearing with the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Obama, Vice President Biden, and chief of staff Denis McDonough spent the holiday placing individual calls to House and Senate members, according to a White House official. That effort is expected to continue throughout the coming week.
Top administration officials have also scheduled a series of meetings and briefings to make the White House's case for limited military strikes on Syria.
On Tuesday, Obama will meet with the chairmen and ranking members from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, House Foreign Affairs Committee, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and House Armed Services Committee at the White House before he departs for Sweden.
The White House held an unclassified conference call for the House Democratic Caucus on Monday morning, with Kerry and Hagel joined by Rice, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
There will also be a series of members-only classified briefings by the administration on Capitol Hill starting Tuesday. While it is not yet clear who from the administration will conduct all the top secret briefings, meetings are scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and the following Monday.