By BRADLEY KLAPPER
and NEDRA PICKLER
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said today he's confident Congress will authorize a military strike in Syria, as lawmakers were holding their first public hearing about how to respond to respond to last month's alleged sarin gas attack outside Damascus.
Obama met with congressional leaders at the White House as part of his push to win over support for his request for authorization for limited military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. He indicated he is open to changing the language to address lawmakers' concerns, but urged them to hold a prompt vote.
"So long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, which is to send a clear message to Assad, to degrade his capabilities to use chemical weapons, not just now but also in the future, as long as the authorization allows us to do that, I'm confident that we're going to be able to come up with something that hits that mark," Obama said.
With war-weary Americans skeptical of sparking another long-winded intervention, Obama tried to assure the public involvement in Syria will be a "limited, proportional step."
"This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan," Obama said.
After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls show most Americans opposed to any new military action overseas. That reluctance is being reflected by senators and representatives, some of whom say Obama still hasn't presented bulletproof evidence that Assad's forces were responsible for the Aug. 21 attack. Others say the president hasn't explained why intervening is in America's interest.
The meeting in the Cabinet room included House speaker John Boehner, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, along with other members of leadership and the heads of the committees on armed services, foreign relations and intelligence. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey also attended before heading over to Capitol Hill for testimony later in the day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A classified briefing open to all members of Congress was to take place as well.
Obama won conditional support Monday from two of his fiercest foreign policy critics, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
A congressional vote against Obama's request "would be catastrophic in its consequences" for U.S. credibility abroad, McCain told reporters outside the White House following an hour-long private meeting with the president.
But despite Obama's effort to assuage the two senators' concerns, neither appeared completely convinced afterward. They said they'd be more inclined to back Obama if the U.S. sought to destroy the Assad government's launching capabilities and committed to providing more support to rebels seeking to oust Assad from power.
"There will never be a political settlement in Syria as long as Assad is winning," Graham said.
McCain said Tuesday he is prepared to vote for the authorization that Obama seeks, but the Arizona Republican also said he wouldn't back a resolution that fails to change the battlefield equation, where Assad still has the upper hand.
In an appearance on NBC's "Today" show, McCain called it "an unfair fight" and said that if the authorization for U.S. military intervention doesn't change the balance of power, it "will not have the desired effect."
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he believes the panel will back Obama if the administration explains "the full case" for the use of force as well as what it sees as the end result. "Not acting has huge consequences," Menendez said on "CBS This Morning" Tuesday.
"It sends a message" not just to Syria, he said, but to Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups.
After a Labor Day weekend spent listening to concerned constituents, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the administration needed to make its case on these points, if only to counter the misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating about Obama's plans.
"Several people asked me if we were only interested in getting Syria's oil," Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "It's important that Americans get the facts."
Petroleum is hardly the most pertinent question. Even before Syria's hostilities began, its oil industry contributed less than half a percent of the world's total output. And Obama has expressly ruled out sending American troops into Syria or proposing deeper involvement in the Arab country's violent civil war.
But such queries are a poignant reminder of the task awaiting the administration as it argues that the United States must exert global leadership in retaliating for what apparently was the deadliest use of chemical weapons anywhere over the past 25 years.
Obama has insisted he was considering a military operation that was limited in duration and scope. The White House said Monday that Obama was open to working with Congress to make changes in the language of the resolution, which Congress was expected to begin considering next week.
In a conference call Monday with House Democrats, several members of Obama's own party challenged the administration's assertions.
In a post on his website, Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., reflected a view shared by at least some of his colleagues: "I am vehemently opposed to a military strike that would clearly be an act of war against Syria, especially under such tragic yet confusing circumstances as to who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons."
Their skepticism is shared by many tea party Republicans and others, whose views range from ideological opposition to any U.S. military action overseas to narrower fears about authorizing the use of force without clear constraints on timing, costs and scope of the intervention.
The most frequent recurring questions: How convinced is American intelligence about the Assad regime's culpability for the chemical attack, a decade after woefully misrepresenting the case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? And how does a military response advance U.S. national security interests?
Pressuring the administration in the opposite direction are hawks and proponents of humanitarian intervention among both Democrats and Republicans who feel what Obama is proposing is far too little.
Obama's task is complicated further because he leaves for a three-day trip to Europe on Tuesday night, visiting Stockholm, Sweden and then attending the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The White House said Tuesday that Obama spoke to a key ally in the G-20, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, by telephone Monday night to discuss Syria and pledged to continue to consult on a possible international response.
The simple case for action is the administration's contention that the sarin gas attack violated not only the international standard against using such weapons but also Obama's "red line," set more than a year ago, that such WMD use wouldn't be tolerated.
The U.S. said it has proof that the Assad regime is behind attacks that Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists, says it has so far only been able to confirm 502 dead.
Intervening in Syria's conflict is no light matter, however. Having claimed more than 100,000 lives in the past 2½ years, the fight has evolved from a government crackdown on a largely peaceful protest movement into a full-scale civil war scarily reminiscent of the one that ravaged Iraq over the last decade. Ethnic massacres have been committed by both sides, which each employ terrorist organizations as allies.
Since Obama's stunning announcement Saturday that he'd seek congressional authority, dozens of members of Congress have issued statements. Most have praised the administration for its course of action, and several have suggested they are leaning one way or another. But precious few have come out definitively one way or another.
McCain said he thinks many members were still "up for grabs."