WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 scepticism 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.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress the threat of military action still was critical to forcing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to bend on his chemical weapons.
"For this diplomatic option to have a chance of succeeding, the threat of a U.S. military action - the credible, real threat of U.S. military action - must continue," Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee.
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.
"Nothing has changed with respect to our request for the Congress to take action," Kerry told the House hearing. "As to when and how, that's something the president may want to chat with the leadership about."
Obama met with Senate Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol in separate meetings on Tuesday ahead of a nationally televised address 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."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid would not predict when a Senate vote on Syria might occur. "The last 24 hours have had some remarkable changes in what people are talking about," Reid told reporters. "Let's see what else happens."
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.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, a Republican who announced last week he would support a strike, said the American people still did not support military action in Syria and Obama needed to make a stronger case.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday showed public opposition to military strikes remained high, with 62 percent of Americans saying the U.S. military should not intervene in Syria and just 18 percent backing intervention.
Obama has said military action is needed to hold Assad accountable for an August 21 poison gas attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians, including hundreds of children.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president will claim credit for the potential diplomatic breakthrough in his speech. "We see this as potentially a positive development and we see this as a clear result of the pressure that has been put on Syria," Carney said on MSNBC of the Russian proposal.
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.
At the House hearing, 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."
Kerry will travel to Geneva, Switzerland, on Thursday to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the Syrian chemical weapons proposal, U.S. officials said. Kerry told lawmakers he expected to get proposals from Lavrov on Tuesday on securing the chemical weapons.
The House hearing turned contentious at times. Kerry tangled with Republican Jeff Miller of Florida over whether the Senate delayed its Wednesday vote on the resolution to explore diplomacy or because the administration did not have the support to pass it.
Kerry accused Miller of wanting to play politics. "I'm not being political, Mr. Secretary," Miller said. "It's the truth. They don't have the votes. Read any newspaper in this country and you will find that out."
Kerry later shot back: "Look, do you want to play politics here or do you want to get a policy in place?"
The Senate's new bipartisan group working on a modified resolution included Democrats Robert Menendez, Carl Levin, Charles Schumer, Chris Coons and Robert Casey as well as Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and Saxby Chambliss, aides said.
McCain said the resolution would be offered as an amendment to the authorization for military force and would set a timeline for Damascus to turn over chemical weapons or face action. He said he was willing to see if it worked.
"I am very sceptical, but I'm certainly willing to give it a chance," McCain told reporters.
Carney noted "there is ample reason to be sceptical" about Syria's intentions.
"We need to make sure beforehand that the Syrians are serious and will actually follow through on a commitment to give up a chemical weapons stockpile that they've been husbanding for decades against this international prohibition," he said.
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.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Paul Eckert, Susan Heavey, David Lawder and Richard Cowan; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Karey Van Hall, Doina Chiacu and Jim Loney)