Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about the authorization of use of force in Syria. Jack Gruber, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - President Obama's hopes of winning congressional backing for a military strike against Syria received a huge lift on Tuesday when two top House Republicans announced their support of taking military action against Syria
Both House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., endorsed Obama's call for action against Bashar Assad's regime following a meeting with Obama and other lawmakers at the White House.
"The use of chemical weapons is a barbarous act," Boehner said.
Cantor added that the USA has "a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially by a terrorist state such as Syria."
The backing of the two top Republicans marked a significant moment in the Syria debate in which conventional wisdom said Obama's chances of winning were slim.
In the meeting with lawmakers before leaving Tuesday for Sweden and Russia for the Group of 20 summit, Obama said he was open to lawmakers rewriting his resolution seeking authorization for the use of force: "I would not be going to Congress if I wasn't serious about consultations."
A resolution proposed in the Senate on Tuesday would set a 60-day deadline for military action in Syria, with a 30-day extension possible, according to a draft of the report. A vote could come as early as Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Obama dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, to answer questions from the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
In a session relatively free of drama, the president's national security team stressed the potential costs of not going to war - an emboldened Hezbollah, Iran and Assad regime - while saying little about how the strike would prevent further bloodshed or end the internecine war that has killed more than 100,000.
"This is not the time for armchair isolationism," Kerry said, addressing skeptics on both the political left and right. "This is not the time to be spectators to a slaughter. "Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence."
Two polls published Tuesday show Obama continues to face a daunting task in getting the public to support his call for military strikes against Syria. Nearly six in 10 Americans oppose using military action, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. A Pew Research Center poll found that 48% of adults are against military strikes, vs. 29% who are in favor. Only a portion of both polls were conducted after Obama said he would seek congressional authorization.
And resistance remains among lawmakers. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an outspoken opponent of a military strike, noted he visited 40 cities in his state during the summer recess and not one of his constituents told him they favored military action. Because Obama says he maintains the authority to take military action without Congress' approval, Paul said the current debate was "meaningless."
"Only if our vote is binding, is it meaningful," Paul said.
Aamer Madhani and Catalina Camia, USA TODAY