Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have had "a candid exchange" with President Barack Obama on Syria, and, McCain warned Monday, "the consequences would be catastrophic" if Congress votes against a military strike against President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons.
"The consequences would be catastrophic because it would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the credibility of the president of the United States. None of us want that."
"We had a candid exchange," he said, noting that he was encouraged by the meeting. "We found some areas where we can work together, but we have a long way to go.”
Graham also expressed optimism.
"The president has to fix this," Graham said. "We urged the president to up his game. If we don’t get Syria right, we don't want endless war. We want sustainable stability.
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"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."
McCain and Graham met privately with Obama as the White House's lobbies Congress for a military strike against Assad.
The senators, who have long pressed for a stronger U.S. response in the country, said over the weekend that they might vote against a resolution authorizing military action in Syria because they considered Obama's plan as too limited.
And as many more lawmakers said they were wary of a strike on Syria, no matter how limited, the White House stepped up its lobbying.
Earlier Monday, the administration held a 70-minute telephone briefing with the House Democratic Caucus. The call included Secretary of State John Kerry; Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Susan E. Rice, national security adviser; and James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence.
The call included 127 House Democrats, nearly two-thirds of those in the House.
Outside the White House, McCain said the administration's plan now could be more difficult because Assad "is moving his forces around." He and Graham questioned the wisdom of Obama publicly signaling the U.S. in advance its intention to strike.
Obama had said earlier this year that any documented use of chemical weapons by Assad against his own population would amount to a "red line" that the international community would not let him cross.
The president now has called for a military response to Assad's reported use of chemical weapons in the civil war that has lasted more than two years. The administration said on Sunday that it had evidence he recently used sarin gas in a Damascus suburb.
McCain said on Monday that he believed lawmakers awaiting a critical vote on Syria "must be assured that this is different from the past two years of neglect" on the part of the administration.
He said he differed with the administration's view that there was sufficient time to seek an authorization from Congress.
"I am not satisfied that the timeline is of no consequence — and I am astounded when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says it doesn't matter," McCain said, referring to Army Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Both senators said Obama has to work harder to persuade Congress and the American people that a strike against Assad is necessary.
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"They have to work very hard," McCain said. "Americans are very skeptical. They have a selling job to do.
"There is a credibility gap with many of us," he said. "Many of my colleagues in Congress are going to have to be convinced either way."
"It is not surprising to me that many of us in Congress are reluctant to engage in Syria because you don't know what's going to happen," Graham said. "'OK, we've struck Syria. Now what?'
"What can I sell to people in South Carolina?" the senator asked. "I can't sell another Iraq or Afghanistan, because I don't want to. What I can sell to the people of South Carolina is that if we don't get Syria right, Iran's surely going to take the signals that we don't care about their nuclear program."
He and McCain emphasized that any prolonged U.S. effort in Syria would not include American troops.
"There should be no American boots on the ground," McCain said. "They are tired of it and weary of it."
A U.S. strike would be most effective if it targeted Assad's air operations, he said.
"We have to bring Bashar al-Assad down," he said. "If we take out his air operations, he would be at a great disadvantage."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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