WASHINGTON (AP) — With Congress deep in debate over support for a military strike on Syria, President Barack Obama left open the possibility Wednesday that he would order retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack even if the House and Senate withhold their approval.
"As commander in chief, I always preserve the right and responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security," a traveling Obama said at a news conference in Sweden. In a challenge to lawmakers back home, he said Congress' credibility was on the line, not his own, despite saying a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line."
The president spoke as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee struggled to draft a resolution authorizing a strike against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Secretary of State John Kerry told a House panel without elaboration that U.S. intelligence could prove that Syria had used chemical weapons 11 times.
In the Senate, members of the Foreign Relations Committee sought a compromise that would give Obama the support he seeks, satisfy lawmakers who are determined to tilt the balance against Assad in Syria's civil war, and reassure members of Congress and the public that there will be no U.S. combat presence on the ground.
A bipartisan measure unveiled Tuesday evening would set a 90-day limit on Obama's ability to order a strike and included a ban on U.S. combat operations, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters he wants a change elsewhere in the measure. "Without the provision for reversing the momentum on the battlefield, then conditions are not created for the departure of" Assad, he told reporters after a closed-door committee meeting.
It was unclear when the panel might vote, and an Associated Press survey showed that in the Senate at large, nearly 70 lawmakers were undecided or had not stated an opinion on a resolution along the lines that Obama is seeking.
Across the Capitol, Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel went before the House Armed Services Committee to seek legislation backing a military response to the chemical weapons attack of Aug. 21. The administration blames the episode on Assad's government and says more than 1,400 civilians died, including at least 400 children. Other casualty estimates are lower, and the Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels fighting to topple Assad were responsible.
Asked about international support for Obama's threatened military strike, Kerry said the Arab League has offered to pay the cost of any U.S. military action. He was not specific but said the offers have been "quite significant, very significant."
Obama, who will cross paths with Russia President Vladimir Putin at a G-20 economic summit this week, was asked about the strains that their differences on Syria were putting on their countries' relations. Obama said he would continue to engage Putin, even though advances in U.S.-Russia relations had "hit a wall."
Putin said in an interview with The Associated Press that Russia "doesn't exclude" supporting a U.N. resolution on military strikes against the Syrian government if it is proved that government forces used poison gas on civilians. But he said it was "ludicrous" that Syria would use chemical weapons at a time when rebels were on the defensive.
Elsewhere on Wednesday:
— In Rome, Pope Francis underscored Vatican opposition to threatened military strikes against Syria, urging Catholics and non-Catholics alike to take part in a day of fasting and prayer for peace on Saturday. He has called for a negotiated settlement in Syria and also has condemned the use of chemical weapons.
— In France, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament that failure to take action would allow Assad to launch more chemical attacks.
In Washington, Kerry did not elaborate on his statement that Assad had used chemical weapons 11 times, but he said one such occurrence was last spring. At the time, he said, Obama did not have a "compelling" enough case to push for a U.S. military response.
As for the most recent chemical weapons attack, Kerry declared that "only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen - and the Assad regime did do it."
Few if any members of Congress dispute the administration's claim that Assad was responsible for the attack, and lawmakers in both parties appear far more focused on determining how they should respond.
Gaveling the House committee hearing to order, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said that while it would be important to deter the use of chemical weapons by Assad and others, there remained many unanswered questions, including what the U.S. would do if Assad retaliated.
"The administration's Syria policy doesn't build confidence," he said.
In a letter to her rank and file, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said she had received suggestions for legislation in the House "to add language to prevent boots on the ground, to tie the authorization more closely to the use of chemical weapons and to address concerns about an open-ended timetable."
In his comments in Sweden, the president sought to shift the onus for responding to Assad to Congress and the world at large. "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line" with a treaty banning the use of chemical weapons. He added that "Congress set a red line" when it passed legislation a decade ago demanding Syria stop production of weapons of mass destruction.
His comments drew a disbelieving response from one Republican back home.
"He needs to go back and read his quote," Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said, referring to a comment the president made slightly more than a year ago. On Aug. 20, 2012, Obama said, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. ... "That would change my calculus" about military action, he added at the time.
In addition to his remarks at a news conference on Wednesday, Obama also likened the challenge confronting the United States and the world with regard to Syria to the actions of Raoul Wallenberg a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from death during the Holocaust. Obama went to the Great Synagogue of Stockholm, where he stood with Jewish leaders and said, "Because he refused to stand by, Wallenberg reminds us of our power when we choose not simply to bear witness, but also to act."
An Associated Press survey of lawmakers indicated many were withholding judgment on legislation.
In the Senate, 17 said they support or are leaning in favor of giving Obama the authority he seeks, with 14 opposed or leaning against.
The other 69 were undecided or their views were not known.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Josh Lederman in Sweden and Bradley Klapper, Alan Fram, Deb Riechmann, Kimberly Dozier, Lolita Baldor and Andrew Taylor in Washington contributed to this story.