U.S. President Barack Obama and top national security officials urged Congress on Tuesday to keep the pressure on Syria over its chemical weapons arsenal while the United States explores a diplomatic alternative to military strikes.
A potential diplomatic breakthrough put the brakes on a vote in Congress over authorizing military force as lawmakers and the administration sought more time to assess Russia's proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control.
Obama has faced stiff resistance in Congress to any military action, and lawmakers on both sides of the issue were quick to seize on the Russian proposal as a possible way out despite skepticism about its eventual success.
A group of Republican and Democratic U.S. senators began drafting a modified resolution on the use of military force that would give the United Nations time to take control of Syria's chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress the threat of military action was critical to forcing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to bend on his chemical weapons.
The Senate has delayed a vote planned for Wednesday authorizing military force. Kerry said Obama might speak to congressional leaders on the "when and how" of an eventual vote.
Obama met with Senate Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol in separate meetings on Tuesday ahead of a nationally televised address he will make from the White House on Tuesday evening.
"What he wants is to check out the seriousness of the Syrian and the Russian willingness to get rid of those chemical weapons," said Senator Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "He wants time to check it out."
The Russian diplomatic initiative, which emerged after off-the-cuff remarks by Kerry on Monday alluding to such a deal, marked a sudden reversal following weeks in which the West appeared headed toward intervention in Syria's 2 1/2-year-old civil war.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell became the first of the four top party leaders in the Senate and House to definitively oppose the strikes, saying he would not support a resolution on military force because "a vital national security risk is clearly not in play."
Obama has said Assad needs to be held accountable for an August 21 poison gas attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians, including hundreds of children.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said the Russian proposal was a validation of Obama's efforts to take action against Syria. "I think this is a victory for President Obama if it is real," Pelosi told reporters.
Kerry told lawmakers that Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed the approach last week during the G20 summit in Russia and Obama "directed us to try to continue to talk and see if it is possible."
Obama spoke by phone with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron about the Russia proposal. But in a sign of how difficult the diplomatic path will be, an emergency closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Syria was canceled after Russia withdrew its request for the session.
Get all the latest news and videos in your inbox. Register FREE