The Senate's leading critic of President Obama's war plans in Syria is now calling for a "permanent hold" on the vote to authorize military force in Congress following a surprise proposal from Russia to avert a military confrontation.
On Tuesday, as the Obama administration ramped up its lobbying on Capitol Hill, Sen. Rand Paul convened a group of some 30 lawmakers skeptical of a military intervention in Syria. The group -- which included Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN) and two dozen others -- discussed different strategies for staving off a military intervention and the desire to call off a vote to authorize military force.
"I think everybody is hopeful that putting the vote on a permanent hold would be the best route forward," Paul said in an interview with The Cable.
The push to delay a vote comes as Syria hawks, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Republican Senator John McCain, renew their push for Congressional authorization for a strike. In the meantime, the White House agreed Tuesday to talks on a Russian plan that would avert a military strike by having Syria hand over its chemical weapons stockpile to the international community.
"Today's development should make Members of Congress more willing to vote yes," said McCain in a joint statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham. "This will give the President additional leverage to press Russia and Syria to make good on their proposal to take the weapons of mass destruction out of Assad's hands." Kerry reiterated that point during a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "Nothing has changed," he said, referring to the request for authorization.
Paul said hawks such as McCain and Graham who are now taking credit for the potential breakthrough on Syria are incoherent.
"Their message has morphed into an argument that is inconsistent with their old argument that the president doesn't need Congressional authorization and should've bombed Syria weeks ago," said Paul. "The people on the other side haven't been concerned with leverage. They've been wanting to drop bombs from the outset. There wouldn't have been time for leverage if we hadn't demanded the president first seek authorization."
While Paul was skeptical that Moscow would carry through on its proposal, he encouraged the president to pursue the potential breakthrough energetically. "We have to trust but verify whether they're going to be sincere," he said, echoing the statement by Obama on Monday night. "All of us are concerned about Syria's chemical weapons. No one wants them used on civilians or our soldiers."
He also tweaked Obama's claim that his threats of military intervention led to this diplomatic opportunity. "If he needs to claim credit for avoiding war, I'm fine with that. I think avoiding war is more important than claiming credit," he said. "Those of us who have delayed this bombing are just happy to get to a point where we're negotiating instead of fighting."
Although Paul said he thinks a vote to authorize military force should be delayed, it's not because he's predicting a majority of "yes" votes in the House of Representatives. According to a Congressional source who attended this morning's anti-war meeting, the broad consensus is that any vote for war would lose in the House. "I was surprised by how positive all the members sounded about defeating this vote. There seems to be a groundswell of opposition against it in the House, and all the Members are very passionate about it," an aide told The Cable. Concerns remain that if the vote passed in the Senate, the White House may consider that authority enough to wage a strike.
As for the GOP leadership in the House, John Boehner (R-OH) and Eric Cantor (R-VA) remain supportive of Obama's Syria strike while other top Republicans such as Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and James Lankford (R-OK) have voiced skepticism. Many rank-and-file House members strongly oppose a Syria strike.
Meanwhile, in a positive development for the White House, a number of war-weary Democratic lawmakers, such as Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn), praised the president for his tough stance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "I think it's a direct result of the president saying he's ready to do whatever is necessary to back up what he's already said," said Cummings.
On both sides of the aisle and in the White House, skepticism remains about whether Russia and Syria will follow through on any deal. "There was general agreement that the CW deal is going to delay the vote," said the aide in Tuesday's anti-war meeting. "But no one trusts the Russians."