WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama gained ground Tuesday in his drive for congressional backing of a military strike against Syria, winning critical support from House Speaker John Boehner while key Senate Democrats and Republicans agreed to back a no-combat-troops-on-the-ground action in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.
Officials said the emerging Senate measure would receive a vote Wednesday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Approval is likely.
"You're probably going to win" Congress' backing, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a conservative and likely opponent of the measure, conceded in a late-afternoon exchange with Secretary of State John Kerry.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens as President Barack Obama speaks to media, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, before a meeting with between the president and Congressional leaders to discuss the situation in Syria. Boehner said he will support the president's call for the U.S. to take action against Syria for alleged chemical weapons use and says his Republican colleagues should support the president, too.
The leader of House Republicans, Boehner emerged from a meeting at the White House and said the United States has "enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it's necessary."
Boehner spoke as lawmakers in both parties called for changes to the president's requested legislation, insisting it be rewritten to restrict the type and duration of any military action.
In the Senate, the compromise was the work of Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., among others. They are the chairman and senior Republican, respectively, on the Foreign Relations Committee, which held a lengthy hearing during the day on Obama's request for congressional legislation in support of the military reprisal he wants.
The measure would set a time limit of 60 days and says the president could extend that for 30 days more unless Congress votes otherwise.
The measure also bars the use of U.S. ground troops for "combat operations."
The White House had no immediate reaction to the Senate measure, although Kerry, testifying earlier before the committee, signaled that the troop restriction was acceptable to the administration. "There's no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground," he said.
"President Obama is not asking America to go to war," Kerry said in a strongly worded opening statement. He added, "This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter."
Obama said earlier in the day he was open to revisions in the relatively broad request the White House made over the weekend. He expressed confidence Congress would respond to his call for support and said Assad's action "poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region.
The administration says 1,429 died from the attack on Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower, and Assad's government blames the episode on rebels who have been seeking to overthrow his government in a civil war that began over two years ago. A United Nations inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country before completing a closely watched report.
The president met top lawmakers at the White House before embarking on an overseas trip to Sweden and Russia, leaving the principal lobbying at home for the next few days to Vice President Joe Biden and other members of his administration.
Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the Senate committee hearing while, a few hundred miles away, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged caution. He said any punitive action against Syria could unleash more turmoil and bloodshed, and he advised that such strikes would be legal only in self-defense under the U.N. Charter or if approved by the organization's Security Council. Russia and China have repeatedly used their veto power in the council to block action against Assad.
In the Middle East, Israel and the U.S. conducted a joint missile test over the Mediterranean in a display of military might in the region.
Obama set the fast-paced events in motion on Saturday, when he unexpectedly stepped back from ordering a military strike under his own authority and announced he would seek congressional approval.