WASHINGTON, D.C. (KPIX 5/CBS News/AP) — U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Monday that she continued to support President Barack Obama’s proposed military strike against Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack last month. But Feinstein added that she was open to a new suggestion by the Russian government to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.
Battling stiff resistance in Congress, President Obama, meantime, conceded he might lose his fight for congressional support of a military strike and declined to say what he would do if lawmakers rejected his call.
In an interview with CBS News Monday evening, Obama acknowledged, “I understand” the American people aren’t yet with me on a Syrian strike.
The president made his comments as a glimmer of a possible diplomatic solution appeared after months of defiance from the Russian-backed government of President Bashar Assad in Syria that called for United Nations supervision and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. In a rapid response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cited “international discussions” in unexpectedly postponing a test vote originally set for Wednesday on Obama’s call for legislation backing military action.
“I have read the announcement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that his country has asked Syria to transfer control of its chemical weapons to international monitors for destruction to prevent an international strike. I would welcome such a move,” Feinstein said in a statement provided to CBS San Francisco and other news outlets. “I believe that Russia can be most effective in encouraging the Syrian president to stop any use of chemical weapons and place all his chemical munitions, as well as storage facilities, under United Nations control until they can be destroyed.”
In the CBS News interview planned as part of a furious lobbying campaign in Congress, Obama said statements suggesting that Syria might agree to surrender control of its chemical weapons stockpile were a potentially positive development.
At the same time, he said they were yet another reason for lawmakers to give him the backing he is seeking.
“If it doesn’t continue to be a credible military threat from the United States,” Obama told CBS News, he did not think there would be a agreement. “And so, we need to keep the pressure on.”
The U.S. accuses Assad’s government of being behind an attack using sarin gas in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, killing 1,429 people. Some other estimates of the deaths are lower, but there is wide agreement that chemical weapons were used. Experts believe that the Syrian government’s arsenal of chemical weapons includes nerve agents like sarin, tabun and VX as well as mustard gas.
In an interview with Charlie Rose that was broadcast Monday on “CBS This Morning,” Assad denied responsibility for the attack, accused the Obama administration of spreading lies without providing a “single shred of evidence,” and warned that air strikes against his nation could bring retaliation. President Obama told CBS News that Assad’s assertions and threats lacked credibility.
Classified briefings for lawmakers just back from vacation, the public release of cringe-inducing videos of men, women and children writing in agony from the evident effects of chemical gas, and a half-dozen network news interviews featuring Obama were folded into the White House bid to avert a Congressional defeat in the coming days. Obama also was scheduled to address the nation from the White House Tuesday evening.
In the Senate, California’s Barbara Boxer said she would join her Golden State colleague Feinstein in voting to support the president – even though an Associated Press poll showed that 61 percent of those surveyed nationwide wanted Congress to vote against authorization of U.S. military strikes in Syria, with just 26 percent wanting lawmakers to support such an action.
“They don’t know what I know. They haven’t heard what I’ve heard,” Feinstein has said of the public sentiment.
Other Bay Area lawmakers, though, have come down on the other side of the question.
In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was the only Bay Area member of Congress to tell KPIX 5 on Monday that she would vote for a strike. Three other members said they were firmly in the “No” camp and two more leaned against a strike; six were still undecided.
Legislation approved in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week would give Obama a maximum of 90 days to carry out a military attack, and it includes a ban on combat operations on the ground in Syria. Both of those limitations were last-minute concessions to critics of a military option, and it was unclear whether Reid would seek additional changes to build support.
Despite the difficulty confronting Obama, an AP survey indicated the issue was hardly hopeless for the president, particularly in the Senate where Democrats maintain a majority, and perhaps also in the Republican-controlled House.
The survey showed 23 Senate votes in favor of military authorization and 10 more leaning that way. Opponents totaled 20, with another 14 leaning in the same direction, with the remaining 33 senators undecided or publicly uncommitted. That created at least the possibility of the 60-vote majority that will be necessary to advance the bill.
In the House, there were fewer than a dozen declared in support and 150 opposed or leaning that way. But 201 lawmakers had yet to take a public position, more than enough to swing the outcome either way.
(Copyright 2013 CBS San Francisco and the Associated Press. All rights reserved.)