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US Senate leader delays crucial test vote on Syria

Published on Sep 10, 2013 6:48 AM
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks to reporters before the summer recess at the US Capitol Aug 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. Mr Reid said Monday he is delaying a key procedural vote on authorising use of force in Syria until President Barack Obama publicly addresses the issue.-- FILE PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Monday he is delaying a key vote on authorizing the use of force in Syria to let President Barack Obama publicly address the issue.

Earlier in the day, the top Obama ally in Congress had scheduled the crucial test vote for Wednesday but then backtracked to let the US leader sell his plan on strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"I want to make sure the president (makes) his case to the Senate and the American people before voting on this matter," Mr Reid said.

"I don't think we need to see how fast we can do this. We have to see how well we can do this." Amid deep divisions in Congress over the way forward, Mr Obama meets with Democratic and Republican senators Tuesday and gives a televised address to the nation that night.

Russia, which has blocked US and British efforts to gain a United Nations resolution approving international action against Syria, appeared to open a path toward a solution Monday when it suggested a plan for Damascus to hand over its chemical weapons.

Mr Obama called the plan "potentially positive," and hinted at congressional delays as his administration weighs Moscow's comments.

"I don't anticipate that you would see a succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future," Mr Obama told ABC News.

But Republican Senator John McCain, who has long pressed for military action, said he remained "very, very sceptical" of Russia's offer.

"It's got to be verifiable, it's got to be definitive, and it's got to be time sensitive," he told reporters.

Mr McCain said the plan would need to see inspectors enter Syria "immediately" to get the chemical weapons under control and removed within two weeks. He added that he would want to see the deal approved by the UN Security Council within a week.

Passage of Mr Reid's Senate procedural step, known as a cloture vote, would let the chamber proceed to official debate on a resolution endorsing limited military action.

Should there be objections to the motion, as at least one Republican senator threatened last week, the 100-member chamber would need 60 votes to move forward.

Mr Obama's Democrats control the Senate, but it is unclear whether the president has the necessary support to meet the 60-vote threshold.

Mr Reid, however, said he has spoken to top Republican Senator Mitch McConnell and "virtually all my Democratic senators, and we have enough votes to get to cloture."

At least three lawmakers who had been among the many in the undecided column announced Monday they would oppose the move to authorise the use of force.

"After step A, what will be steps B, C, D and E?" veteran Republican Senator Lamar Alexander told his constituents.

"I see too much risk that the strike will do more harm than good by setting off a chain of consequences that could involve American fighting men and women in another long-term Middle East conflict."

The Senate resolution now being considered forbids US boots on the ground in Syria for combat purposes, but several war-weary lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have voiced concern that a strike would still draw the United States deeper into a Mid-east military entanglement.

First-term Senate Democrat Heidi Heitkamp said she and Senator Joe Manchin, another Democrat who has voiced deep skepticism about Mr Obama's plans, were drafting "an alternative approach" that would give Assad 45 days to sign an international chemical weapons ban and start turning over such poison gas.

Approval of Mr Obama's plan may be tougher in the Republican-held House of Representatives, where far more lawmakers have spoken out in opposition of the strikes than in favour.