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Senate Vote On Syria Delayed; Debt Ceiling Doomsday In October; Syria Anxiety Surfaces At 911 Service; U.N. Security Council To Meet; Authorization of Force

Aired September 11, 2013 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening right now, a ceremony is getting underway over at the Pentagon on then the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Earlier, a moment of silence marked the exact moment of impact.

Also right now, authorities are inspecting trucks at two bridge and tunnel locations in Virginia after a threatening phone call. State police are on high alert in the Hampton Roads area.

Also right now, the Obama administration facing new questions on Syria after the president's primetime speech last night. Reporters are looking for answers at today's White House briefing.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

President Obama hits the pause button on military action against Syria to give diplomacy a chance. But how long can he wait and what happens in the meantime? Later this hour, I'll give you my take on what's going on.

Last night in a primetime speech, the president made his case for military action and he pushed Congress to give him the authority to strike Syria. At the same time, he said he's willing to give a diplomatic effort by Russia some serious time to play out.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies.


BLITZER: So, here's where things stand. Military action against Syria clearly on hold for now. The president has asked Congress to postpone any votes on authorizing a U.S. military strike. One big question is whether Syria will comply and actually surrender its chemical weapons. The president says the U.S. military will keep the pressure on and be ready to responsibility if diplomacy does not work.

The next crucial step in all of this, trying to iron out the details of this Russian plan to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control. Now we're getting a report that Russia has given the U.S. its plan, at least for some initial review.

Let's bring in Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty. She's watching what's going on. Jill, give us the latest. What are you hearing about this report?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, those reports are coming in from the Russian wires, and they're coming from Kazakhstan where the minister -- Lavrov, the Foreign Minister, is currently. He will soon be on his way to Geneva to meet with Secretary Kerry. And they are saying that a plan, no details yet on that plan, has been turned over to the United States, and it has a plan of implementing that initiative for putting the chemical weapons under international control.

Now, just a couple of minutes ago in the briefing at the White House, Jay Carney outlined three parts that would go into that. He said they'd have to be secured, they would have to be moved from Assad's control, and then ultimately they would have to be destroyed.

Now, we do know that Secretary Kerry and Lavrov also will have technical experts who will be sitting down in Geneva when they meet on Thursday. They'll be going over all of these details because after all, this is a complex thing to do, and even more so in a war zone - Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, the secretary of state and the foreign minister of Russia, as you know, Jill, they've spoken, what, at least nine times that we know of since that August 21st chemical weapons attack in Syria which the U.S. says killed 1,400 people. So, the stakes are enormous, really, for tomorrow's meeting in Geneva, right?

DOUGHERTY: They are because, really, this is the way either something is going to be worked out or it isn't because, right now, this really is what's stopping President Obama from going forward with that vote. It's the diplomatic initiative that they are hoping and it's really a technical initiative that they're hoping can actually work. There's a lot of doubt. You'd have to say, as you well know, in Washington, this might be a delaying tactic. It might be a delaying tactic by Russia or by Syria, so they have to test it. And that's the word you're hearing from a lot of U.S. officials, testing it, making sure that it really holds up and it's something that can be done realistically as opposed to just pushing off some type of deadline.

Jill Dougherty, our Foreign Affairs Correspondent in Moscow for us. All right, Jill, thank you.

So, what is President Obama's next move on Syria? What about the U.S. Congress? What do lawmakers do right now? Brianna Keilar is over at the White House. Dana Bash is up on Capitol Hill. Brianna, the diplomatic efforts by the president, some serious time on Syria. So, what is he planning to do during the -- during this pause, shall we say?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know, right now, Wolf, the focus is very much on what comes out of this meeting with Secretary Kerry and his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. It does appear, at this point, that the White House is trying to regroup and really sort of figure out what their next step is. If you ask them, they'll say, you know, plan A was military force. Plan B is now this diplomatic effort. If that is to fail, then we could go back to plan A.

But, of course, as Dana will tell you, the appetite for military force on the Hill was already small before and it has only diminished because of what has happened with this being a potential diplomatic, I guess, off-ramp, you could say, for the White House right here. So, they're putting a lot of emphasis on the meetings in -- that are going to happen in Geneva. I think that they're hoping that buys them time here through the weekend, and as well as they're looking to the U.N. to sort of buy them time, as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the -- and the president is making it clear, or he did last night, his aides are making it clear, they're going to continue to hold this military threat directly over Syria right now because they believe that's giving the impetus, if you will, to the Syrians and the Russians to at least consider some sort of diplomatic move.

KEILAR: Yes, that's what they say. Of course, there's a couple of ways to look at this. One, they do feel that this development did come about because they had this military threat. But at the same time, I think they were also searching for a way to justify why President Obama essentially, as we know now, Wolf, really kind of took the U.S. to the brink of their being a strike. So, I think, in a way, they're also looking to save a little face in what appears to be President Obama kind of going back and forth. We heard last night in the speech, he argued for military force but he also argued against it. So, there certainly is that element that they're trying to kind of make sense of some of this here.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar over at the White House, thank you. Let's go to Capitol Hill right now where the president made an in-person appeal yesterday to both Democrats and Republicans. And now, as we've been saying, the action clearly on hold at least for now.

Let's bring in our Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash. So, where do the Senate and the House stand right now, Dana, as far as a formal Syria resolution is concerned?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They're -- everything is on hold. The pause button has been pressed and that is at the direct request of President Obama. I'm told that that's actually what he said in the Republican lunch that he attended yesterday.

But in the meantime, there is some discussion, actually significant discussion going on behind the scenes, particularly in the Senate, with senior Republicans and Democrats trying to come up with the proper language that they would not need if, in fact, they would need to push the diplomatic process forward by keeping the teeth of military activity as an option. So, that is being discussed but it really is on the back burner.

Meanwhile, we're seeing something that we certainly have not seen very much of at all in recent years and that is bipartisan praise for Russia. Watch this.


SEN. DIANE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: I believe that Russia's goal is, in fact, to eliminate these weapons. And I would point out that that is also our goal. So, I very much hope that the path to settlement, although complicated, no doubt, but if well intentioned by all participants, it can be accomplished.

REP. TOM MCCLINTOCK (R), CALIFORNIA: Last night, he stepped back from an international crisis that could have had catastrophic consequences by deferring to the Russian diplomatic initiative, thank god.


BASH: That kind of sums up the feeling here. He's pretty candid about the relief that a lot of people feel here but they also understand as much as they want to trust that the Russians will be able to work this out with the U.S. and then, of course, more broadly at the U.N., they're not entirely sure this is not going to come right back into their lap - Wolf.

BLITZER: So, do they get back to some domestic agenda issues during this pause right now? They've got to finish up the spending bill by the end of this month, they've got a debt ceiling they've got to raise, what, next month. They've got other issues like comprehensive immigration reform. What's going -- what's going to happen as far as that domestic agenda, Dana, is concerned?

BASH: Well, already yesterday afternoon, there was talk in the hall about an energy bill which we hadn't heard at all discussed, anything of that ilk, you know, since Congress came back or even when they were on recess. But, of course, the big issue is one of the ones you mentioned is that this is what we thought we were going to be talking about all of September, and that is the deadline for the government to run out of money at the end of September, September 30th if Congress doesn't pass a bill to extend it.

And what's going on right now is absolutely a turn to that, particularly in the House where Republicans have a proposal for a three-month extension. And right now, they're struggling to get the votes because of opposition on the right and the left. So, that probably sounds familiar. It's not just with Syria but also domestic issues as well.

BLITZER: Yes. The fighting will continue. And these are really, really important issues that have to be resolved in the next few weeks. Dana, thanks very much.

The controversy over U.S. Military action in Syria even surfaced today at a ceremony be in New York marking the 12th anniversary of the 911 attacks. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And my uncle, Salvador (ph) (INAUDIBLE) Papasa (ph), I was only three when you were taken from us, and we love you and miss you very much. And President Obama, please do not bring us to another war.


BLITZER: That was part of a somber remembrance ceremony held this morning at ground zero. Two thousand seven hundred fifty-three people were killed when terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center Towers back in 2001. Another service is happening right now at the Pentagon. One hundred eighty-four people were killed in the attack there. Defense secretary Chuck Hagel will speak this hour. President Obama was at a separate Pentagon service earlier this morning. He spoke to the victims' family members telling them the hearts of the nation still ache for all the lives lost that day. A service in Shanksville, Pennsylvania commemorated the heroic passengers and crew members of United Airlines Flight 93. They tried to overtake the terrorists when the hijackers crashed the plane into a field. Forty people were killed.

And on the first anniversary of an assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a car bomb exploded outside a foreign ministry building in Benghazi. While no one was hurt, the blast did blow away large parts of the building's facade. If you remember, it was exactly one year ago today, four Americans, including the Ambassador Chris Stephens, were killed in a terror attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. Security has already been tightened at western diplomatic posts around the world on this day because of 911.

The Syria debate on Capitol Hill, we're reaching out for reaction from both sides of the aisle. One for, one against. Did the president's speech change anyone's mind? We're about to find out.


BLITZER: All right. We're just learning that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, that would be the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom, they are going to be meeting later this afternoon to start discussing what's going on in Syria and perhaps this Russian initiative to come up with a plan that would not only control Syria's chemical weapons, but eventually wind up destroying those chemical weapons stockpiles.

Our Nick Paton Walsh is up at the United Nations. We'll check in with him later to see what's going on. But there's clearly some diplomatic movement in advance of tomorrow's major meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, between the secretary of state, John Kerry, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.

Though the Senate vote on Syria is clearly now delayed, the president will still need an answer at some point down the road. Does he get the go-ahead from the Congress just in case so he can strike if the new diplomatic push that Russia has now initiated does not pan out?


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don't think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons.


BLITZER: The Indiana Republican senator, Dan Coats, was on the fence, at least until yesterday. Shortly after meeting with the president on Capitol Hill, he came out against any authorization of U.S. military strikes in Syria. Senator Coats is joining us right now.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: You're a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Do you have any doubt that the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad did in fact use chemical weapons to kill more than 1,000 people outside Damascus on August 21st?

COATS: No, I don't. I think the evidence strongly points to the fact that Assad did use these weapons against his own people.

BLITZER: So what, if anything, do you want the United States to do about that?

COATS: My certain is that the president has not announced, and I've been in many, many briefings, including direct discussions with the vice president, and, of course, the president's presentation to us yesterday, plan b isn't there. We don't know what's going to happen if this so-called limited attack shot across the bow, unbelievably small, doesn't work, and what it will bring us in -- how will it engage the United States in potentially a fourth effort in the Middle East to resolve some internal problems.

We all - our hearts go out to those who have suffered, not just the 1,400 in the gas attacks, but the 100,000 that have lost their lives. And so we need, I think, very carefully to understand what our future is going to be in the Middle East in terms of how we can effectively engage and how we can't. Our people are war weary, but they're also war wise. We have learned lessons that what is laid out on paper in terms of our engagement, whether it's just an attack or boots on the ground, has not given us the results that we had all hoped for.

BLITZER: So if the Russian initiative were to fail, and we don't know if it succeeds or fails but let's say it fails, if it were to fail, you would still oppose any U.S. military retaliatory action against the Syrian regime. Is that right?

COATS: Well, listen, I don't think it's an all for one, one for all, forever draw the line. Clearly circumstances can change that I think would put this maybe more in the strategic interests, long-term strategic interests of the United States. An attack on Israel, a retaliation, using those weapons across the border, there -- you never want to totally draw the line and say no. But we need more -- different circumstances and more information than we have right now, I think, in order to engage.

BLITZER: So the - I guess the question is this, and I know that a lot of members are struggling and I'm sure you're struggling, as well. If a country uses chemical gas, sarin gas, to poison its own people, we just say, the United States just says, the world, the international community just says, that's too bad, go ahead and do whatever you want? Because that's the alternative if you listen to administration officials, they say the president drew a red line deliberately because that is so outrageous to do something like that, the world must stand up and do something. And if the world doesn't, at least the United States should for moral considerations. You understand that argument they've been making.

COATS: I do. Well, Wolf, I'm not sure that line was drawn decidedly or planned. It might have been more accidental. And the president found himself in a situation where he felt he had to respond. But, no, we take each situation as it arises and we evaluate it on its merits in terms of what we can do effectively and what we can't do. Again, because we have not gotten a solid answer in terms of what do we do if this doesn't work and how do we engage and do we yet get into another -- a fourth effort in the Middle East, which doesn't bring us desired results. I think all this has to be put in context of what we're dealing with now and what different circumstances we might be dealing with in in the future.

BLITZER: We heard several of your colleagues in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, say they hope this Russian diplomatic initiative works. Do you?

COATS: Well, I think we all hope it works, but I think we all have -- or most of us, at least I do, have severe reservations about trusting the Russians. What is their motive here? They've been supplying Syria with weapons from the beginning. It is their surrogate country in the Middle East. They've bought time perhaps -- who knows for what reason. So I think we need to be skeptical there and I think the president has indicated that.

But, you know, we sort of stumbled into this through accidental diplomacy. It did buy the president some time. I don't think the votes are there for -- either from Democrats or Republicans to pass this in the Senate and give him that authorization. So perhaps he wants to pursue this partly for the purpose of better explaining to the American people what our interests are and how we should go ahead. We'll see how all this develops, but we have to be skeptical about the ability of the United Nations even to technically carry this out in the midst of a war. So it's hard to see just how this will be implemented effectively and perhaps resolve the problem. But if it can be resolved in a constructive way, of course we would all support that.

BLITZER: Senator Coats, thanks very much for joining us.

COATS: Thank you.

BLITZER: The other side of the issue will be heard, as well. We're going to be speaking live with Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz about her decision to support the president. What a loss could mean to the rest of the president's agenda. She's standing by live. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: We just heard from the no side of the Syria discussion up on Capitol Hill. Let's get the other side right now. The Florida democratic congresswoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, is joining us.

Congresswoman, thanks very much for coming in.

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D), FLORIDA: Thank you, Wolf. It's great to be here.

BLITZER: As far as a vote is concerned, authorizing the use of military force both before the speech last night, after the speech last night, it still looks like a huge uphill struggle, if not impossible, in the House of Representatives, given the long-standing opposition, the strong opposition, not only from many conservative Republicans, but many members of the liberal democratic base. Is that a fair political assessment?

SCHULTZ: Well, I think actually, what's the most important development is, beyond the president laid out a very convincing case both in terms of the evidence that he presented to the American people, that Assad actually committed this attack and murdered, you know, almost 1,500 of his own people in cold blood, but also the moral case. And I think what's clear here, and I think this is the discussions I've had with my colleagues over the last 36 hours is, that many of us, if not most of us, believe and understand that the president won't have this political and diplomatic potential solution to securing these chemical weapons internationally and preventing Assad from using them again without their belief that we would strike. And that threat was important and it remains important so that they understand that they need to proceed with their proposal to have these chemical weapons secured.

BLITZER: But I think it's still an uphill struggle. Look, I spoke with Congressman Elijah Cummings last night. You know him well.

SCHULTZ: Yes, he's a good friend.

BLITZER: I don't think there's a member of the House of Representatives who admires and even loves the president more than Elijah Cummings.


BLITZER: But even he told me - even he told me last night that he has not yet been convinced that he would vote yes in favor of a U.S. military strike, as much as he supports the president. And he speaks for a lot of liberal Democrats out there. So I'll repeat the question. It's still a huge uphill struggle to get those 217 votes that you will need in the House.

SCHULTZ: It's important that the president and the administration continue to educate members to make sure they understand that the evidence is there, that as the world's only remaining superpower that we have the moral necessity to make sure that a leader like Assad can never again commit the murder of almost 1,500 people that he did, including the children.

And then one thing the president said last night really has stuck in my mind, and I think this is going to help members to get to where they think they would support authorization, is that, you know, as one of the -- as really the only world superpower, when we have the ability to make a difference and engage in moral leadership and block abhorrent conduct like this, and it is not, you know, majorly impactful on the United States of America, it's essential that we do that. We have to -- we have to make sure that leaders like Assad, and subsequently Iran and others and terrorist organizations understand that there will be a certain and severe response when you engage in conduct that the entire world virtually decided over almost 100 years ago was abhorrent and unacceptable and should never be utilized.

BLITZER: Listen to the former president, Jimmy Carter, how he spoke out on this issue last night.


JIMMY CARTER, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Congress has not yet decided what to do. United States public is heavily oriented against any military strike. I share that belief. But I'm also concerned about what President Obama can do now to bring back his stature and to make sure we have a successful conclusion of rapidly changing events in Washington, in the United Nations, in New York and Syria and obviously in Russia.


BLITZER: Not often you hear a former Democratic president speak of a current Democratic president that his international stature has been diminished. So what would you -- how would you respond to that criticism from jimmy Carter?

SCHULTZ: Well, I mean, I think President Carter speaks from experience about diminished stature in an international crisis. But - so, obviously, his input is valuable. But I think President Obama is in the strongest position -- has put America in one of the strongest positions we've been in, in over a decade.

You know, President George W. Bush had significantly degraded our international influence around the world. We stood alone in the war in Iraq. We were roundly criticized, and rightfully so. And today, we have 35 nations that have -- that signed the statement in support of the U.S.'s commitment to strike, and who have underscored the importance of degrading and deterring Assad from ever being able to commit these horrific acts against his own people, particularly children, again. So we -- President Obama's leadership has rebuilt our credibility around the world with leaders that was decimated in the previous administration.

BLITZER: A lot of people, I'm sure, will disagree with that assessment, especially given the fact the British parliament, our closest ally, wouldn't even support a potential U.S. military strike in Syria.

SCHULTZ: Wolf, the reality is, is that we have leaders standing with President Obama, standing behind President Obama, that simply weren't there in the previous conflict that turned out to be one that was based on trumped up intelligence.

Here, the intelligence is clear. There's no disputing it. It's essential that we not allow any leader in the world and certainly no terrorist organization to think that the United States will shrink from action when people are murdered in cold blood by their own leaders with chemical weapons.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, also the chair of the Democratic National Committee, thanks for joining us, as usual.