Meet the Press   |  September 01, 2013

2: Will Congress give Obama the OK?

Chuck Todd reports on how the president changed his mind on seeking approval from Congress for a Syria strike, and Sen. Chris Murphy forecasts how the debate will unfold on Capitol Hill.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> and we're back. from war to now waiting for congress , president obama shifted his stance on military strikes in seyria at the 11th hour. chuck todd is here to take us inside the president's thinking and what changed.

>> it was remarkable. you know, ten days ago, it wasn't a matter of if but when the president was going to order a military strike to respond to the bashar al assad 's use of chemical weapons . but in the intervening days, an extraordinary series of events overseas and here at home caused the president to shift gears. it's these horrifying pictures of lifeless bodies, some of them children, clearly victims of some sort of massive chemical attack that convinced the president and his entire national security team they had to act. and so a pr campaign began.

>> the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity.

>> the president, mindful of a war-weary american public, promised a limited campaign.

>> i have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in syria. but we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable.

>> but as the drum beat got louder, some in congress wanted to tap the brakes. speaker boehner sent a very pointed letter dee manding answers to some 14 questions. meanwhile, british prime minister david cameron called his parliament back from vacation to debate a role from the uk for any strike, but his efforts were ill fated.

>> it is clear to me that the british parliament , reflecting the views of the british people , does not want to see british military action. i get that, and the government will act accordingly.

>> cameron's defeat had a strong impact on mr. obama, who watched it all from the west wing . whatever his misgivings, the march to war reached a new level on friday as the president dispatched his secretary of state to argue his case forcefully to the american public.

>> history will judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turn a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding and decency.

>> but just a few hours after kerry 's stirring churchill-like remarks, the president took a walk on the white house south lawn with his chief of staff, dennis mcdonough, and decided he needed congressional approval. earlier that morning a poll indicated nearly 80% of those surveyed said the president should go to congress first. and while the president's decision did not sit well with his national security team, by yesterday morning they were on board.

>> i have decided that the united states should take military action against syrian regime targets. i have made a second decision. i will seek authorization for the use of force from the american people 's representatives in congress .

>> this was a president, david, that was realizing he was isolated. no united nations . no arab league . and then no british support. and it was the uk moment that was sort of the straw that broke the president's back on this one, and that's why he's going to congress .

>> always concern about the legal basis for a military strike . a change at the 11th hour, as you say. chuck todd , thanks very much this morning.

>>> let me turn now to senator chris murphy , democrat from connecticut. and senator, on the one hand he's coming to congress . perhaps that pleases you. but you also heard the president say in chuck's reporting and in his statement yesterday he's decided to use military force .

>> well, listen, i think this is the right move the come to congress . i don't think we want to go into this kind of serious military action as a nation divided. and i frankly think that the time it's going to take to have this debate will allow for more deliberation. i agree with president kerry this is a moral obscenity. the the question is, is military action actually going to make the situation better on the ground for the syrian people and how do you make sure this doesn't escalate into something much more damaging and much more bloody within the region. and i think that this week or this week and a half is going to allow the administration to think through and work through with congress a plan that, a, makes sure that assad doesn't simply turn to more ferocious attacks on his own people, and make sure there's a plan in place such that this doesn't spill into something that ends up having even more people killed in the region.

>> but senator, you heard secretary kerry say this was a sarin gas attack . that was news this morning based on new evidence and intelligence. and the president is saying in effect -- my words, not his -- you've got 100,000 people killed, you now have 1,500 people killed by chemical attack , including hundreds of children. how much bloodier does it have to get until the united states says wmd, that's the line you don't cross, we have to respond?

>> listen, i mean, i'm thinking about my two little kids at home every time that i watch those videos and those photos. and the question really is not is this unacceptable but can we make the situation better. and ultimately, my worry is, and what's going to be my guiding principle over the next week as i enter into these deliberations, is will a u.s. attack make the situation better for syrian people or worse. there's a potential you could end up allowing those chemical weapons into the hands of even worse people, a wing of al qaeda , and there is of course a potential that this could spill into a much broader conflict in the region, which could allow a lot more people to be killed. i think those are just the essential questions we have to ask. the guiding foundation and principle of american foreign policy should be do no harm, and i think that will be the foundation of our debate.

>> so are you a yes or no vote, and does congress pass the authorization?

>> listen, i think congress passes the authorization. i was on the losing end of a 12-3 vote in the foreign relations committee against giving the president the authorization to arm syrian rebels. i certainly enter this debate as a skeptic, but i'm going to allow the administration to make its case this week. i'm going to go back to washington to sit on the foreign relations committee . i'm certainly a skeptic going in. but i'm going to allow the administration to present its evidence to congress and to the senate.

>> senator murphy, thank you very much this morning. i appreciate it.

>> thank you, david.

>>> coming up here, americans are split on their support for u.s. military action in syria. have the president and his administration made a convincing case to a war-weary public? [