2 Democratic Senators Propose Alternate Plan For Syria

President Obama on Tuesday meets with Democratic senators to press his case for military action against Syria. Two moderate senators are offering an alternative plan. It would delay military action for 45 days, and give Bashar Assad another chance to get rid of his chemical weapons. Steve Inskeep talks to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota about the plan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And the debate over Syria suddenly shifted yesterday. Russia and Syria grabbed the idea of turning over Syria's chemical weapons. President Obama says he's interested. So are many in Congress who resisted the president's request for military strikes on Syria.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This diplomacy coincides with a push by two Democratic senators to take what seems to be a complementary approach. Both Democrats say they oppose strikes now but they could authorize using force if the United States first pauses 45 days to give Syria time to give up its chemical weapons. Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota co-sponsors this plan. She's on the line. Good morning, Senator.

SENATOR HEIDI HEITKAMP: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How have your colleagues responded to this Russian proposal?

HEITKAMP: I think that there is a great deal of curiosity about whether this, in fact, is real. The skepticism you heard the president discuss and the administration, you know, relay is the same skepticism that there is on the floor of the Senate and with my colleagues. And so we're all guardedly waiting, hoping that this proposal is, in fact, real and that there is a legitimate intent...

INSKEEP: Might...

HEITKAMP: ...to move forward.

INSKEEP: Might save you from a really tough vote.

HEITKAMP: Well, you know, we're here to make tough votes. And the people of North Dakota didn't send me here to dodge tough votes. But they did send me here to make a calculated decision. And it seems like at this point this is an opportunity, we'll see if it's real.

INSKEEP: Well, will Congress have to support the president in some way, in order to make sure he has the credibility to push Syria, to make that idea of giving up chemical weapons a reality?

HEITKAMP: I think that if - in our democracy, we all have an opportunity to weigh in on very critical issues. The president has asked us for our best judgment. He's represented, last week, a willingness to listen to alternative ideas, and I think that's the process we're going through.

INSKEEP: OK, let me ask about your alternative. You're saying, as I read the resolution that you have co-sponsored, that you would authorize military force after a wait of 45 days. And during the 45 days, you push - or the United States pushes Syria to give up the chemical weapons. Why wait 45 days?

HEITKAMP: I think you may be misreading a little bit of the proposal.

INSKEEP: Help me out.

HEITKAMP: What we basically say is that after 45 days, you know, the president has the ability to use the power that he has currently in law. And so, that then becomes the decision of the president on what is the appropriate response.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that you are not explicitly authorizing military force. But it sounds like you have worded it in such a way that he could presume - as he has said he does - that he has the authority to do what he needs to do.

HEITKAMP: I think that the wording is such that we have an opportunity, I think, first and foremost, to engage in a diplomatic discussion. And that's really what we've been doing last week. I came back to Washington, D.C., I thought it was critical to get well-versed in all of this to have a discussion, not just what the administration, but public policy experts in the region. And then talk about what it is that we need to do.

You know, Steve, this week in my office we've gotten a lot of walk-ins all through North Dakota. And one that I will always remember is that veteran coming in and looking at the staff members and saying: Please, tell the Senator we're tired - can we find a different way. And I think it's that mandate, that expression of can we find a different way. We've gone through 12 years of war, maybe there's an alternative.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about your alternative. You want to wait 45 days before saying the president can do what he needs to do. Couldn't Assad just hide away his chemical weapons during the 45-day pause?

HEITKAMP: Well, theoretically he could have been doing it during this pause that we're having right now. I mean time has not been of the essence, as we have seen the administration relay. If it were, I don't think we would be having these discussions and this kind of dialogue. And so, whatever time period or whatever opportunity for surprise has already been gone.

INSKEEP: OK, one other question, Senator Heitkamp, you're looking for a third way. But suppose this comes down to a yes or no vote - support the president or don't support the president, let him go or don't let him go. Would you feel you have to support the president in this crisis?

HEITKAMP: Well, I think that what we're doing is going through a process whereby we have an opportunity to have a dialogue in this country. And hopefully we're going to be able to come to a consensus that the vast majority of the Members of Congress can support.

INSKEEP: But if it gets down to yes or no on military force, are you a no right now?

HEITKAMP: I am, on the resolution that passed the committee, I'm a no.

INSKEEP: The Senate coalitions committee, you're a no. OK.

Senator, thank you very much.

HEITKAMP: Thank you so much, Steve. You have a great day.

INSKEEP: That is North Dakota's Senator Heidi Heitkamp. She is co-sponsor of an alternative resolution proposing another way out, she says, to the crisis in Syria.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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