Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks at a news conference Sept. 9 in Washington. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The Senate’s top Democrat has delayed a procedural vote on a bill authorizing military action in Syria, and a key member says the chamber will not finish its work on the measure this week.
The delay came after a Russian plan to avoid American military action in Syria, a proposal to which US lawmakers reacted with cautious optimism.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced Monday evening he will not file a motion to end debate on the chamber’s force resolution until the president has met with senators and addressed the nation. President Barack Obama will do both on Tuesday.
“I don’t think we need to see how fast we can do this,” Reid said. “We have to see how well we can do this matter.”
Shortly before Reid appeared on the chamber floor, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Defense News on Monday he “would be surprised” if the chamber holds a final vote by Thursday evening on a resolution authorizing Obama to launch military strikes on Syria’s Assad regime.
Because House GOP leaders are waiting for the Senate to vote before even signaling what measure the lower chamber will eventually take up, Corker said “finishing Friday or next Tuesday won’t matter.” (Friday is a Jewish holiday.)
He was responding to a question about a delay hindering the effectiveness of US cruise missile strikes, which Obama wants in order to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack that allegedly killed more than 1,000 people.
Corker said Senate leaders have agreed to an “open rule” on the Foreign Relations Committee-approved force resolution. That means amendments are possible on the floor; it also means it likely will take the chamber longer to complete its work.
In the meantime, members of both parties said a Russian proposal to have Assad turn over his chemical arsenal to the international community was accepted by GOP and Democratic members.
GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, in a joint statement, said the Russian plan should cause members to vote in favor of a force resolution.
“It should be clear to members of Congress that only the threat of military action against the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities is what could create a possibility for Assad to give up control of those weapons,” the duo said.
“For this reason, Congress should proceed with its plans to consider and vote on the authorization for use of force that is now before the Senate, and today’s development should make members of Congress more willing to vote yes,” McCain and Graham, the chamber’s leading proponents of a bigger military operation in Syria than Obama is planning. “This will give the president additional leverage to press Russia and Syria to make good on their proposal to take the weapons of mass destruction out of Assad’s hands.”
In his own statement, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said “it’s long overdue that Russia weigh in to get its client state to give up its chemical weapons and abide by international law. If Russia is serious, and not just helping Syria stall, it could make a difference.”
“But we shouldn’t get our hopes up too high given Syria’s past behavior and Russia’s lockstep support for Syria with weapons and with its United Nations veto,” Levin added.
Levin’s remark about high hopes was echoed by members of both parties in both chambers.
Minutes before his joint statement went out, Graham told reporters he believes Moscow and Assad “are playing us like a fiddle.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a former House Intelligence Committee chairman, said the Russian plan should be reviewed but warned Moscow might not be a reliable broker.
Still, King told reporters, “sometimes you have to shake hands with the devil.”
House Intel Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said the plan must face scrutiny “to see if there’s any teeth to their bark.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said any proposal “that keeps us out of another war” should be considered. But he and HASC ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., preached skepticism about the proposal.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a close confidant of House Speaker John Boehner, said it’s just too soon to judge the credibility of Moscow’s overture.
But Corker told reporters had his panel not passed a use-of-force resolution last week, Russia would not be pushing a plan to avoid US military action in Syria.
Staff writer Rick Maze contributed to this report.