McCain, Graham Meet With Obama

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The two Republican senators say the president should have acted sooner against Syria, and that he must a strong case to Congress in favor of a military strike.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. President Obama and his national security team are working around the clock to sell Congress on authorizing a military strike against Syria. The president says the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, cannot be allowed to use chemical weapons with impunity. But over the weekend, Obama said he would seek congressional approval for any action. And today, Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain went to the White House and emerged from the meeting saying this.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: We need to do it, frankly, it's shameful that we haven't.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Two years ago.

But we should've done it two years ago.

SIEGEL: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now from the White House. And Mara, did the president and the two Syria hawks have a meeting of the minds?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, it seems like they had the beginnings of one. Before this meeting, Graham and McCain said they might vote against a resolution because they thought it would be too little too late, not effective enough. But now, they say they see the beginnings of a plan from the president to upgrade the opposition's capabilities and degrade the Syria regime's capabilities, hopefully to the point where Assad will be forced to the negotiating table.

Here's what John McCain said coming out of that meeting.

MCCAIN: We need to see that plan. We need to see that strategy articulated. We also have to make it clear that a vote against this would be catastrophic in its consequences, not only as far as this issue is concerned, but in the future.

LIASSON: McCain says it would be catastrophic because it would shred U.S. credibility for this president and for future ones, send a message to Iran that they can go ahead and develop nuclear weapons with impunity. So they're giving the president conditional support. They're saying that it sounds like he's coming over to their point of view. This is not just going to be a pinprick strike, but something that could change the dynamic of the conflict.

I think if the vote succeeds in Congress, this meeting today will have been the turning point because these are two crucial Republican senators and they will bring other votes with them, but it still will be a very tough sell.

SIEGEL: That's the meeting between President Obama and Senators McCain and Graham. What else is the administration doing to try to bring Congress around to its way of seeing things?

LIASSON: Well, it's a full court press. There was another briefing today, a conference call for 127 House Democrats with Secretary of State John Kerry. Tomorrow, there will be more classified closed-door briefings for Congress, also the Senator Foreign Relations Committee will hold a public hearing. They'll hear from the secretary of State and the Defense secretary and the chairman of the joint chiefs.

Tomorrow, the president will be meeting with the House Speaker John Boehner and the Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The administration is trying to do everything it can to convince members that they have a plan for what happens not just with the strikes, but for the day after, that it will do what McCain and Graham were talking about, degrade Saddam's capability to use chemical weapons again.

SIEGEL: That's Bashar al-Assad's capability.

LIASSON: Bashar al-Assad's capability.

SIEGEL: Does President Obama have the votes he needs in Congress?

LIASSON: Not now. There's a lot of opposition from Republicans, not only from the libertarian right who don't want to get involved, but also from Republicans who don't want to do anything that he wants to do. Also, opposition from anti-war Democrats and from members who are merely reflecting their own constituents' war weariness.

That's why McCain and Graham said today it's extremely important for President Obama to stress that there will be no boots on the ground and also to make the argument that Syria matters to the United States. It's not just Syria. It's about Iran and it's about Israel. But time is of the essence. The House is going to come back September 9th. The president's leaving tomorrow night for a trip to Europe and he doesn't have a lot time.

SIEGEL: Let's say the Congress votes no or one house votes no. Can the president still use military force?

LIASSON: Well, legally, yes, but politically it will be very, very hard and that's why McCain and Graham were so tough on the president. They said it's no one's fault but his own that he's in this situation because he has neglected to ever lay out for the American people why Syria is important.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

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