WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama worked on Monday to persuade skeptical lawmakers to endorse a U.S. military intervention in civil war-wracked Syria, winning conditional support from two leading Senate foreign policy hawks.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Obama still needs to make a strong case for attacking the regime of President Bashar Assad, but they toned down past criticism that the president's plan was too weak to change the course of the fighting in Syria in favor of the opposition.
"We have to make it clear that a vote against this would be catastrophic in its consequences," now and in future international crises, McCain told reporters outside the White House following an hourlong private meeting that he and Graham had with Obama and White House national security adviser Susan Rice.
But the outcome of any vote remained in doubt amid continued skepticism in a war-weary Congress. Several Democrats in a conference call with administration officials pushed back against military action, questioning both the intelligence about a chemical attack last month outside Damascus and the value of an intervention to United States interests, according to aides on the call.
Obama has insisted that he will not send troops into Syria and that he was considering a military operation that was limited in duration and scope. The White House said Monday that Obama was open to working with Congress to make changes to the language of the resolution.
"My impression is that a lot of people are up for grabs," McCain said.
Obama was trying to find a middle ground that would attract a majority in the House and the Senate — a difficult task complicated further because Obama is leaving for a three-day trip to Europe tonight, visiting Stockholm, Sweden, and then attending an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In a daring move, Russian President Vladimir Putin was considering sending a delegation of Russian lawmakers to the United States to discuss the situation in Syria with members of Congress, the Interfax news agency reported Monday.
Russian television showed Putin meeting on Monday with Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of the upper house, and Sergei Naryshkin, the lower house speaker, at his residence outside Moscow.
The lawmakers said maybe U.S. legislators can be persuaded to take a "balanced stance" on the issue. Putin supported the initiative, which would require formal approval by the Foreign Ministry.
The White House is engaging in what officials call a "flood-the-zone" persuasion strategy with Congress, arguing that failure to act against Assad would weaken any deterrence against the use of chemical weapons and could embolden not only Assad but also Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — an argument Obama reiterated in his meeting with McCain and Graham.
Following their White House meeting, McCain and Graham, who often speak in unison on foreign policy matters, said they were more inclined to back Obama's call for military action against Syria if it helps destroy the regime's missile launching capabilities and if the U.S. commits to provide more assistance to Syrian opposition forces.
"A degrading strike limited in scope could have a beneficial effect to the battlefield momentum," Graham said. "There will never be a political settlement in Syria as long as Assad is winning."
As recently as Saturday, McCain and Graham issued a joint statement saying they could not support isolated military strikes that were not part of a broader strategy to change the momentum of the civil war.
After Monday's meeting, McCain said: "Now we are talking about ways of approaching this issue in a way that could be effective. We've got to see more, but at least they are talking about some options that I think could work."
Asked whether Obama would expand his targets in Syria, McCain alluded to the Navy's decision to place two aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea. The USS Truman arrived in the region to take the place of the USS Nimitz, which was supposed to head home. But the Navy ordered the Nimitz to stay for now.
U.S. officials have described the decision as prudent planning and have said it doesn't suggest the Nimitz would play a role in any possible strikes in Syria.