President Barack Obama faces a clear uphill battle in swaying skeptical lawmakers of the merits of military action in Syria, as top officials were dispatched to Capitol Hill Sunday to make the administration’s case.
For example, Senate Democratic aides are drafting new language for an authorization of military force in Syria, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Sunday.
The administration’s proposal is too open-ended — a complaint many lawmakers have — Leahy said after leaving the classified briefing. The current version wouldn’t garner his support, but he indicated that a more tightly written draft might.
“I know it’s going to be amended in the Senate,” said Leahy, who is the longest-serving Democrat in the chamber.
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Dozens of lawmakers flowed into a secure Capitol Hill auditorium on an otherwise sleepy Sunday during the summer recess, eager to hear from administration officials on why the United States needs to respond to the Syrian crisis.
Before the members-onlybriefing, several lawmakers made it clear that Obama has more to do to win their vote.
“I’d probably be leaning no” if an authorization vote were held today, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said. “I think it’s going to be very tough. I think a lot depends critically on how persuasive the president can make the case.”
Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who led an effort to urge Obama to get congressional buy-in on Syria, said the hurdle to pass an authorization resolution was higher in the House than in the Senate.
“Though I have a bias against intervention, I also believe that every member is going to go in there with an open mind,” Rigell told reporters.
According to two sources, the administration officials who briefed lawmakers included deputies from the White House, State Department and Pentagon: Tony Blinken, White House deputy national security adviser; Robert Cardillo, deputy director of national intelligence; Ambassador Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs; James Miller, the under secretary of defense for policy; and Vice Admiral Kurt Tidd, the director of operations for joint staff at the Pentagon.
Among the high-ranking House lawmakers who were seen attending the briefing were House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the third-ranking House Republican; House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.).
A handful of senators were on hand as well, including Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana.
It will be a considerable challenge for the House GOP leadership if it decides to whip their respective members on the vote to allow use of force in Syria.
“I don’t think matters of military action lend themselves to whipping as a party,” Becerra, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, said. “These are singular votes.”
“I think this is a vote of conscience and people will make up their own minds,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told POLITICO.
Still, lawmakers who have consistently pressed for military involvement in response to the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its citizens argued that the administration has a strong case in favor of use of force — even without Congress’s approval.
“If we stand idly by and allow the gassing of men, women and children by a ruthless thug, it will send a message to every despot across the world and every terrorist group across the world that you can commit war crimes and there’s no penalty for it,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “And I think that’s the most compelling reason for us to take action.
“I think if the Congress acts like the British Parliament, I think that we’ve abrogated our responsibility,” he added.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said she was going into the briefing with an “open mind,” eager to hear the Obama administration’s plan for ensuring a limited strike on Syria would remain exactly that — and wouldn’t pull the country into yet another drawn-out and expensive war in the Middle East.
“People want to know that there’s not going to be a military engagement, entanglement, like in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I’m looking forward to reading more about the resolution that’s going to be drafted — what the goals are, the national security objectives, what happens the day after.”