WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday turned up the pressure on a skeptical Congress to support U.S. military action in Syria while closely examining a Russian proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.
President Barack Obama planned six television interviews on Monday, and was due to visit the Capitol on Tuesday to make his case to lawmakers from both parties before making a televised address from the White House in the evening.
Obama faced an uphill struggle to win approval for military action from Congress, where a majority still appeared undecided.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, waded into the debate, endorsing Obama’s drive for Congress to approve military action.
She said the surrender of chemical weapons would be an “important step” but said such a proposal could only have come “in the context of a credible military threat by the United States.”
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem “welcomed” the Russian proposal. Britain and France gave tentative support and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the Security Council should take up the issue.
The Russian offer came a few hours after Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested in London, in response to a reporter’s question, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid a military strike by surrendering his chemical arsenal.
A senior U.S. official described Kerry’s comment as rhetorical, but said Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a later phone call that while he was skeptical about the prospect he would examine any serious proposal.
Administration officials emphasized, however, that the Russian effort should not be an excuse to delay congressional authorization of a military strike.
“It’s important to note that this proposal comes in the context of the threat of U.S. action and the pressure that the president is exerting,” Obama’s deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken told reporters at the White House.
The Russian proposal could make it harder for the administration to build political momentum for military strikes by giving an excuse to some lawmakers to say they prefer to let the diplomatic process play out.
“It basically throws a bit of a wrench into the administration’s approach,” said Robert Danin, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But it may be a welcome wrench.”
Some lawmakers reacted positively to the Russian plan. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Russia could be “most effective” in encouraging Assad to place his chemical arsenal under U.N. control.
The U.S. Senate test is expected to hold a test vote on vote on Wednesday on whether to authorize military action in response to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a Damascus neighborhood that Washington says killed 1,400 people.
Some members of Congress said Obama has lost support for a strike over the last week and polls indicated Americans, weary after wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, strongly opposed military action.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday showed opposition to a U.S. military strike was increasing. The poll, taken Thursday through Monday, indicated 63 percent of Americans oppose intervention, up from 53 percent in a survey ending August 30.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said it was unclear if the resolution authorizing military action had the 60 votes needed to clear procedural hurdles in the 100-member Senate.
Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a supporter of strikes, said on Monday that Obama had “fumbled” the message on Syria and faced a critical moment.
“Mr. President, lay out the case. It’s an important case for the future national security of this country. You’re right on your decision, now show Americans why you believe it’s right,” Rogers said on MSNBC. “And when he does that, I think we’re going to get votes.”
Assad, in an interview with CBS television, denied there was any evidence linking his government to the attack and warned that if there were strikes against Syria, the United States should expect reprisals.
Susan Rice, making her first major speech since taking over as Obama’s national security adviser, said the United States cannot allow countries such as North Korea and Iran to think Washington would not react to a chemical weapons attack.
“We cannot allow terrorists bent on destruction, or a nuclear North Korea, or an aspiring nuclear Iran, to believe for one minute that we are shying away from our determination to back up our longstanding warnings,” she said at the New America Foundation think tank.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly passed a resolution last week endorsing military strikes but prohibiting the insertion of U.S. ground combat troops in Syria and limiting the intervention to a maximum of 90 days.
But with the hunt on for more votes, other alternatives were being explored. Rep. Chris van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said he was writing a resolution with Democrat Gerald Connolly of Virginia that would be narrower than the Senate resolution.
He said the resolution would “make it absolutely clear that the only purpose of military action is to deter Assad from future use of chemical weapons.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, said she was working with Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia on an alternative that would give the Assad government 45 days to sign an international chemical weapons ban and begin the process of turning over its weapons.
“During this time, the U.S. would work to build international support and create a global response on the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” Heitkamp said.