It’s 1 p.m. on Tuesday and Senator John McCain of Arizona steps off a train in the Senate’s basement, on his way to a closed-door luncheon with President Obama and Senate Republicans. But before he makes his way upstairs, he huddles with reporters and shares an update about his attempt to craft a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. “I’m very skeptical,” he says, referring to Russia’s interest in brokering a deal to remove Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons. “But we’re working on an addition to [a United Nations] resolution to make sure proper conditions are met, with firm commitments for actions and dates.”
For McCain, the Senate GOP’s high-profile hawk, it’s not so much a departure from his long-held position on Syria — he still wants to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. But it is a pivot — and a recognition of the political reality on Capitol Hill, where the Obama administration is struggling to find the votes to authorize the use of force. As that effort has all but collapsed, McCain and a bipartisan group of nine other senators have been recalculating their strategy and hoping to shape the emerging option.
“The way it has transpired seems almost accidental,” McCain says. A few days ago, he expected the president to make the case for war in a speech to the nation on Tuesday evening. Instead, it appears the administration is working behind the scenes to come up with another approach that would avert war by asking the United Nations to oversee the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons. “The White House is working closely with us, and [chief of staff] Denis McDonough just called me an hour ago,” McCain says, signaling the seriousness of the new tactic.
A Republican aide familiar with the discussions says the White House reached out to Republican senators on Monday after concluding the authorization might not win enough votes for Senate passage, and after Russia became involved in the international deliberations. The White House’s pitch to the Senate’s power brokers was simple: They need GOP involvement to get a “third way” through Congress, and they need to move fast to draft alternative legislation that can win wide support.
A second Republican aide, who is close to the Senate GOP leadership, says some White House staffers are now talking about Congress’s not even voting on a war resolution, should this bipartisan group finalize legislation. The buzz, the aide adds, is that the White House is consulting with the U.N. and allies, particularly the United Kingdom and France, about how to make this new plan work. And if it’s possible to bring a diplomatic resolution forward, they’ll push it.
“The president’s advisers are going to walk through the proposal with senators at the Democratic and Republican lunches and then take calls and questions for the rest of the day, taking the temperature of senators and seeing the level of support,” says the aide. “I’m not ready to say that Senate Republicans are there at all, but there is interest in doing something other than giving this White House approval to fire missiles at Assad.”