Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, endorses a break in congressional activity on a possible Syria use-of-force authorization. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — US Senate Democrats and Republicans emerged from separate lunch meetings with President Barack Obama Tuesday and endorsed “hitting the pause button” on possible military strikes on Syria.
A frenzy of activity on Capitol Hill as lawmakers crafted a new use-of-force resolution and digested the possibility of a Russia-backed UN resolution on seizing Syria’s chemical arsenal reached a crescendo as the party caucus lunches broke up.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., co-wrote a force resolution that is awaiting a floor debate and vote. Following the GOP meeting with Obama, Corker said members are ready to “hit the pause button.”
He said lawmakers need to take a break from work on that Syria measure and an alternative effort to craft a new measure that involves the chamber’s No. 3 Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and others.
“I think we should wait for a very short period of time to get a sense of whether this is credible or not,” Corker said of the Russian plan to transfer Syria’s chemical arsenal to international control.
That alternative measure would tie any US military action to a UN resolution, and feature a deadline by which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must give up his chemical arms. If that deadline passes without him doing so, the measure would authorize Obama to strike, as first reported by Politico.
McCain told reporters the White House is being kept apprised of the effort to craft the new authorization. “We’re still working,” he said.
Corker added that “I don’t think it’s appropriate” to discuss the contents of any use-of-force measure until the administration can determine whether the Russian plan is credible — and Moscow’s intent is indeed to strip Assad of his chemical arms.
The Foreign Relations panel’s top Republican told reporters “the next 24 hours is vitally important” as the White House examines Moscow’s plan.
Members of both parties, including Levin, stressed the Senate should continue working on the Schumer-McCain measure, while also moving toward a debate on the Foreign Relations-passed measure.
The idea, senators said, is to use a process that moves the US closer to firing Tomahawk cruise missiles toward Assad-regime targets as leverage against the Syrian leader and his last remaining ally, Russia.
“I think the only reason, I think, that we’ve heard Syria and Russia talk as they have in the last 24 hours is because of the vote in the Foreign Relations Committee,” Levin said.
Levin said the alternative resolution appears to be “a stronger approach” because it builds in an avenue for Assad to give up his chemical arms “without military action.”
“That’s a better outcome,” Levin told reporters, adding if the US opts against acting, the chances rise that some American foe will eventually use chemical arms against US military forces.
Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also endorsed a several-days pause in congressional activity on a possible Syria use-of-force authorization.
She also laid out a timeline for how the next few days might unfold.
If the White House determines the Russian offer is feasible, a UN inspection team would arrive in Damascus in a few days. That team would produce a report early next week. Depending on its contents, the Senate would take up either the Foreign Relations-passed resolution or the McCain-Schumer measure at some point next week.
The House is waiting for the Senate to approve a force resolution before its leaders decide what the lower chamber would take up, likely a few days after the Senate finishes.