Sen. John McCain drew a sharp response from Obama during the meeting Tuesday afternoon when the Arizona Republican told his former opponent that he shouldn't be making a decision on a strategy for the war in such a "leisurely fashion," a source familiar with the meeting said.
A visibly irked Obama sharply replied that he is not making this decision in a "leisurely fashion," and moved on to the next member of Congress, the source said.
It was a sign of the challenge Obama faces as he tries to decide whether to send as many as 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan – a decision one lawmaker said the president indicated he will announce in “weeks, not months.”
Republicans increasingly question whether he’s taking too long to decide on Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request. But one of Obama’s top allies in House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also said that the president can’t necessarily count on Democratic votes for his Afghanistan plan.
“Whether we agree with it or vote for it remains to be seen when we see what the president puts forth,” Pelosi said after the meeting.
Republicans – including McCain — seemed to condition their support for Obama’s decision on whether the strategy is backed by McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus, who are overseeing the conflict.
Republican leaders downplayed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s remark that “everyone, Democrats and Republicans,” told the president: “Whatever decision you make, we’ll support it.”
“I think Republicans will be able to make a decision for themselves,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said with a chuckle. “But I think I can safely say there’s widespread feeling in our conference … that we have confidence in Gen. Petraeus and Gen. McChrystal and if they’re on board I would think that a significant number of our members would be as well.”
And speaking to reporters after the meeting, McCain echoed his concern that Obama is taking too long to make the decision. McCain said he agrees with McChrystal’s assessment of the war,” and is worried about the administration taking “half measures” or “not getting completely out of Afghanistan.”
"I'm very convinced that Gen. McChrystal's analysis is not only correct but should be employed as quickly as possible,” McCain said.
“The option that’s presented by our military commanders in the field endorsed by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff should be given obviously additional weight because they were correct of deploying the strategy that succeeded in Iraq,” McCain said.
But the second in command in the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer, said Obama told lawmakers he will make a “timely” decision.
“The president indicated that he’s going to make this decision in a timely fashion that I think everyone thought was appropriate, and in a considerate fashion,” Hoyer said. Asked what he meant by “timely,” Hoyer added: “My interpretation of that is soon … weeks not months.”
Obama opened the meeting with a statement to explain how he is going about making his decision, telling the 18 lawmakers that he wants their input and will continue to seek it going forward, according to an administration official.
The official said Obama urged the members “to be honest and dispense with the straw man argument that this is about either doubling down or leaving Afghanistan.” In terms of timing, the official said Obama told them “that he will be rigorous and deliberate, while moving forward with a sense of urgency.”
The discussion focused on four key issues in Afghanistan: security, reconstruction, diplomacy and governance, including the leadership of President Hamid Karzai and the recent elections.
When it came time for members to ask questions and comment on the process, Pelosi said various opinions were aired.
“With the diversity in the room needless to say there was some agreement and there was some diversity as well,” she said.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said support in the Senate for a new strategy is still elusive.
“I think a lot of senators and congressmen need to question themselves about how much money they’re prepared to put on the table to support that, for how long a period of time and for what strategy,” Kerry said.
McConnell said that he hopes Obama will “follow the advice of the military generals, “who we believe know what it would take to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan.” His counterpart in the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), said his GOP members will support Obama’s decision as long as the goal continues to be “to deny Al Qaeda and the Taliban a safe-haven in Afghanistan,” which he said he believes it is.
The administration official said Obama “made it clear that his decision won't make everybody in the room or the nation happy.”