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Lawmakers weigh in after Obama addresses nation on Syria

After President Barack Obama addressed the nation about Syria Tuesday night, supporters pledged to cautiously back his pursuit of a new Russian-led diplomatic solution while critics panned what they called a "haphazard" response.

In a primetime address from the White House, Obama described the potential diplomatic path proposed by Russian officials, saying that Syrian President Bashar Assad's possible surrender of chemical weapons to international control could provide a solution to the standoff without U.S. military intervention. But, he added, the United States must remain prepared to use military force if the diplomatic effort fails.

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two Republicans who supported Obama's call for the use of military force, said in a joint statement that the president should have laid out more specific criteria for assessing the Russian proposal. 

"We appreciate the President speaking directly to the American people about the conflict in Syria," they wrote. "We regret, however, that he did not speak more forcefully about the need to increase our military assistance to moderate opposition forces in Syria, such as the Free Syrian Army. We also regret that he did not lay out a clearer plan to test the seriousness of the Russian and Syrian proposal to transfer the Assad regime's chemical weapons to international custody."

Some critics questioned the wisdom of the speech itself, which was originally planned to urge support for a congressional resolution to authorize the use of force. That vote in the Senate was postponed amid the Russian overture -- and questions about whether it would even pass. 

"The administration’s handling of the U.S. response to Syria has been so haphazard it’s disappointed even the president’s most ardent supporters,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “This rudderless diplomacy has embarrassed America on the world stage."

House Intelligence Committee head Mike Rogers, a Republican, said the president "still urgently needs to develop and execute a coherent strategy" to address the national security threats presented by Syria. 

"Like all Americans, I am hopeful a diplomatic solution can be reached," he added. "However, I am skeptical of any proposal proffered by the Russians and doubt Assad's motives for agreeing to this plan."

Some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also expressed wariness of the Russian proposal but said it is worth assessing. 

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., one of the leading opponents of military action in Syria, said in a videotaped response that the United States should not be "naive" about the Russian proposal.

"The possibility of a diplomatic solution is a good thing, though we must proceed with caution on the details," he said. 

But Paul continued to argue that the case for American military intervention in the conflict remains unclear, a sentiment echoed by many of his fellow Republicans as well as by some Democrats who have said this week they would oppose the use of force if it comes to a vote. 

"Just about any bad outcome you can imagine is made more likely by U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war," Paul contended. 

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that he is skeptical about the Russian offer but that he will consider it if it proves to be "legitimate."

"The diplomatic door has opened ever so slightly and while I have doubts about this 11th hour offer, it would be wrong to slam the door shut without due consideration," he said. "A negotiated solution to a crisis is always preferable and if this possibility is legitimate, I'll give it serious thought."

Echoing the president, Menendez added that "should diplomacy fail, an authorization of force will send an unequivocal message to the Assad regime and other international actors that the use of chemical weapons will be met with a military response to prevent their use and proliferation."

Obama met separately with Senate Democrats and Republicans before his remarks to the nation on Tuesday to discuss the new potential diplomatic avenue.

Those meetings were reportedly cordial, although Obama has been facing opposition from lawmakers in both parties over his proposal to conduct limited military strikes with authorization from Congress. A number of senators from both sides of the aisle announced their opposition to the president’s plan Tuesday before the address. 

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he would delay a Wednesday vote on the original measure to authorize force in Syria, citing ongoing diplomatic developments.

Reid suggested Tuesday that no votes on the authorization for the use of force are imminent as U.S. officials pursue the diplomatic alternative.

"I'm not guaranteeing anything," he told reporters. "I do know this: Our schedule is being driven by developments that are taking place, not by some artificial timeline that we have here."

A bipartisan group of senators is currently crafting legislation that would direct the United Nations to pass a resolution that would allow the removal of chemical weapons caches from Syria within a certain timeframe.

But it’s unclear when that language will be complete or when a vote on the resolution would take place.