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Congress shifts its focus away from Syria resolution

By Ted Barrett and Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 7:50 AM EDT, Thu September 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A resolution authorizing military strikes on Syria is put on hold
  • The Senate takes up energy legislation instead
  • The delay provides time for negotiations on a diplomatic solution
  • Sen. Reid: If negotiations fail, the resolution comes back up

Washington (CNN) -- The Senate focused Wednesday on an energy efficiency bill while House Republicans argued among themselves over funding Obamacare as Congress shifted its focus from the Syria crisis in order to give new diplomatic efforts a chance to succeed.

In his nationally televised address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama said he asked legislators to hold off on voting on his requested authorization to attack Syria over chemical weapons while his administration negotiates with Russia on putting Syrian stockpiles under international control.

"Congress will be watching these negotiations very closely," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, warned Wednesday. "If there is any indication they're not serious or they're being used as a ploy to delay, then Congress stands ready to return to that Syria resolution" that would authorize a military strike on Syria.

Obama accuses Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of a major sarin gas attack last month on suburban Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people.

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The president tried to generate an international coalition to attack Syria for violating chemical weapons bans, but Russia blocked any U.N. action and the British Parliament voted against taking part to deny the president a normally reliable NATO ally.

He then went to Congress for authorization, but appeared in danger of rejection by legislators reflecting public opposition to military strikes.

Analysis: Is Obama a winner or loser on Syria?

However, the sudden emergence Monday of a diplomatic opening by Russia, which proposed having Syria give up control of its chemical weapons, caused Obama to ask Congress for time to pursue negotiations before any vote on military action.

So instead of taking up a resolution authorizing a military response to Syria, the Senate considered a bipartisan bill to improve energy efficiency in the United States.

Senators agreed to bar any Syria-related amendments to the energy bill, assuring that heated political rhetoric in Washington won't corrode the negotiations Secretary of State John Kerry will conduct on Thursday and Friday in Geneva with his Russian counterpart.

U.N. blames both sides in civil war

Off the Senate floor, however, talks continued behind the scenes among a group of bipartisan senators on changes to the resolution that Reid said would be taken up if the negotiations with Russia fail.

New language yet to be finalized takes into account Syria's recent acknowledgment that it possesses chemical weapons. It would authorize the president to attack Syria for failing to fully comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention and turn its stockpiles over to the international community.

"I think we've all settled into the fact that until we know what agreement is made with another nation ... it's kind of hard to craft something," said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Corker also criticized Obama's speech to the nation, saying the president failed to effectively make the case that U.S. credibility was on the line in Syria.

"The president just seems to be very uncomfortable being commander in chief of this nation," he told CNN.

On the House side, Republican leaders say they'll wait for the Senate to act on a Syria resolution before taking up the matter.

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said he and colleagues are working on revisions to a resolution that they will propose "if and when the president determines that it would be necessary to proceed with that kind of legislation."

"So we agree that we should take a pause," Van Hollen said.

Instead, House Republican leaders dealt with an internal revolt. They postponed a vote scheduled for Thursday on government funding legislation until next week after many conservatives made it clear they would reject the measure because it includes money for Obamacare.

The politically charged health care law was approved with no Republican support in 2010 and upheld by the Supreme Court last year. Now conservatives are targeting bureaucratic and funding steps required to get new programs under the legislation running this fall.

CNN's Dana Bash and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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