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Senators could vote on Syria force next week if diplomacy fails

Free Syrian Army fighters smoke cigarettes as they rest in Aleppo's Qastal al-Harami neighbourhood September 11, 2013. REUTERS/Nour Kelze
Free Syrian Army fighters smoke cigarettes as they rest in Aleppo's Qastal al-Harami neighbourhood September 11, 2013. REUTERS/Nour Kelze

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers said on Wednesday the Senate could start voting on a resolution to authorize the use of military force against Syria as soon as next week if efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis fall short.

A resolution authorizing strikes against Syria had been expected to come before the full Senate for a vote this week. But it was delayed after President Barack Obama asked lawmakers to wait for the outcome of a Russia-backed diplomatic initiative under which Syria would give up its chemical weapons.

Senators said on Wednesday they would move ahead with a vote if necessary, saying they felt the continued threat of force would pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"That would be a decision made with the administration on strategy as to the timing of Senate action. I think it could be next week... I would not rule out next week," Senator Ben Cardin, a senior Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters.

Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations panel held separate meetings on Wednesday so committee leaders could assess members' attitudes about events in Syria.

Afterward, members said they expected it would be at least a few days before the Senate decided what steps to take next as they await the outcome of Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday and Friday, and any action at the United Nations.

"Right now the focus is on Geneva and the United Nations, and I want to make certain that we don't do anything that's going to derail a constructive, diplomatic approach to solving this problem," said committee member Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

Lawmakers also continued to work on an amendment to the authorization taking into account the Russia-backed plan. Among other things, the amendment would set strict time limits for Assad to hand over his weapons and authorize strikes if he fails to do so.

"There's a strong belief that keeping the credible use of military force is very necessary, and that to the extent that we consider any language, that that must be a prevalent part," said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the committee chairman, who is working with the group of eight other senators on the amendment.

Leaders of Republican-controlled House of Representatives have not yet announced whether they would write their own authorization to use force, vote on the Senate measure or take some other approach.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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