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Politics & Government

Obama Meets With McCain, Graham About Syria Strikes


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. This morning, we're looking at how members of Congress are responding to President Obama's call for military action in Syria.

INSKEEP: In fact, we can expect to hear many voices in that debate in the coming days, on MORNING EDITION. Now, the president says Congress should approve strikes against the Syrian regime, in response to its use of chemical weapons. Secretary of State Johnny Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will press for action when they appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee later today.

MONTAGNE: And yesterday, the president checked an important box in his bid for approval, meeting with two Republican senators whose support would be crucial. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, was at the White House and has this report.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The president received qualified support from Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who've been pushing for military intervention in Syria for more than a year.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: We need to do it. Frankly, it's shameful that we haven't...

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Two years ago.

MCCAIN: ...But - we should have done it two years ago.

LIASSON: Previously, both senators said they were inclined to vote against a limited strike because they thought that would not be enough. But McCain said after talking to Mr. Obama yesterday, he saw indications the president was willing to do more.

MCCAIN: We need to see that plan. We need to see that strategy articulated. We also have to make it clear that a vote against this would be catastrophic in its consequences - not only as far as this issue is concerned, but in the future.

LIASSON: McCain said a no vote would undermine not just President Obama, but future U.S. presidents as well. And it would send a message to Iran, Syria's patron, that the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Iran's push for nuclear weapons. McCain and Graham's support could help Mr. Obama win the votes of other Senate Republicans, so getting them on board was crucial.

MCCAIN: We still have significant concerns. But we believe that there is, in formulation, a strategy to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and to degrade the capabilities of Bashar Assad. Before this meeting, we had not had that indication. Now, it's a question whether that will be put into a concrete strategy that we can sell to our colleagues.

LIASSON: All the same, the president still faces an uphill struggle to convince lawmakers in both parties that he has a comprehensive strategy for Syria, and that it's the right one. The libertarian wing of the GOP is against intervention; so are many antiwar Democrats.

Yesterday at the White House, Senator Graham said he'd try to convince fellow Republicans that there's a reason they and their war-weary constituents should care about what happens in Syria.

GRAHAM: If you can't see the connection between Syria and Iran, you're blind at a time when history needs for you to have good eyesight. The connection between Syria and Iran is clear as a bell. To disconnect these two would be a huge foreign policy, national security mistake. And I hope the president, above all else, will make that connection.

LIASSON: Graham was unsparing in his criticism of Mr. Obama, who he said had no one to blame but himself for the lack of public understanding about what's at stake.

GRAHAM: To the president: If you don't understand that the American people are not going to follow an uncertain trumpet, now's the time for you to reshape public opinion and world opinion. Take advantage of it. Tell us without any hesitation, Mr. President: What does it matter to us, as a nation, if this war goes on and Assad wins?

I believe the president is capable of doing that; has not yet done it, but he is ready to do it. And if he's ready to do that part, I'm ready to go to my colleagues in the Congress and say, now is the time for us to come together - before it's too late.

LIASSON: Today, administration officials will answer questions about Syria for the first time in public, when they testify in the Senate. At the White House, the president will meet with key congressional leaders.

While there is yet no consensus in support of the president's position, there is wide agreement on one thing: Mr. Obama needs to spend a lot more time - and political capital - selling his plan for Syria to the American public.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.