Bipartisan Senators Support Delaying Vote On Syria Strike

President Obama, scheduled to address the nation from the White House on Tuesday evening, trekked to the Capitol in the afternoon to address the Democratic and Republican Senate luncheons.

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President Obama visited Capitol Hill today for separate lunches with Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans. There, he told Senators that he would like to delay a vote on authorizing immediate strikes in Syria to allow time for a diplomatic solution to play out. Yesterday, Russia proposed that Syria turn over all its chemical weapons to international monitors, and the Syrian government has appeared to accept that proposal.

NPR's congressional reporter Ailsa Chang joins us now to talk about how this new development and the choices lawmakers are facing. Ailsa, as senators were spilling out from the luncheon after getting this update personally from the president, did they seem to be on board with him?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: They did. What was so different now from the divisiveness we've been seeing on Capitol Hill for weeks on Syria is that now there appears to be much broader common ground. There was a real sense of relief today from both parties that they could sort of hit the pause button. Of course, there are still a lot of questions about the credibility of Russia and Syria's offer to surrender Syria's chemical weapons.

But there was a cautious optimism that this could be the way out of what might have been a very embarrassing defeat for the president in both houses of Congress because at this point, it was a real question whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had the votes he needed to pass the current resolution authorizing immediate strikes on Syria. Here's what he said right after the lunch with President Obama.

SENATOR HARRY REID: If something can be done diplomatically, I'm totally satisfied with that. I'm not a blood and thunder guy. I'm not for shock and awe. I think it's a situation where we have to be very calm and deliberate what we do. And if things can be worked out with the international community to get these weapons out of the hands of this mad man, then I think that's what we should do.

SIEGEL: There were some big ifs in those remarks by Senator Reid. Was there any talk about withdrawing the resolution to authorize military strikes? The one that's before the Senate now authorizes strikes for up to 90 days.

CHANG: Not really. Not among the people who supported it. In fact, many senators are actually crediting the threat of imminent military force as the reason why Russia and Syria have made this concession. And they say it's important to keep that threat of military action alive in order to make the diplomatic solution a viable one. Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan is chair of the Armed Services Committee.

SENATOR CARL LEVIN: So without that threat, I don't believe there is a chance of them voluntarily giving up their weapons. That threat has got to remain a real one.

SIEGEL: Of course, the question is, can the U.S. maintain that threat without the Congress passing a resolution? I mean, what kind of options are senators considering?

CHANG: Well, one that the White House is closely involved with now is being drafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators. Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York are leading the push on that one. And this proposal would require the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Syria's use of chemical weapons, and it would establish a deadline for Syria to surrender all its chemical weapons to the U.N. And if either requirement isn't met, then the resolution would authorize military force.

SIEGEL: And when would a vote on such a proposal be coming?

CHANG: That's very hard to say right now. Reid has indefinitely delayed voting on the current proposal, and no senator I talked to even wanted to guess at any specific timeframe. What I kept hearing was, let's take our time with this. The U.S. needs to fully vet the viability of the U.N. option. Here's Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who's the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he was a real supporter of military strikes on Syria. He also helped draft the current resolution.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: I don't think we need to rush out with our hair on fire right now. It's just not the thing to do. I think it's time to see what's real about this offer, to see what time constraints are real. And at some point, I would think we would craft something. I think for a short period of time, our best course of action is to pause.

CHANG: So they're basically going to see if how many senators they can get on board with whatever proposal is taking shape before they barrel into the next vote.

SIEGEL: NPR congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. Thanks, Ailsa.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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