Back in the Bubble, Will Congress Shift on Syria?

Shane Goldmacher, National Journal
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Shane Goldmacher, National Journal
Sept. 9, 2013, 6:02 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s best — and per­haps last — chance to con­vince re­luct­ant mem­bers of Con­gress to sup­port a Syr­ia strike may be simply get­ting them out of their dis­tricts and back in­side the Belt­way bubble.

With con­stitu­ent phone calls and emails run­ning over­whelm­ing against in­ter­ven­tion, pro­ponents of strik­ing Syr­ia for the al­leged use of chem­ic­al weapons are bank­ing on get­ting law­makers away from bois­ter­ous anti-war town halls and in­to somber, clas­si­fied brief­ings about the de­tails of chem­ic­al war­fare and the costs of in­ac­tion.

The first big test will come on Monday even­ing, when top Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­visor Susan Rice, Joint Chiefs Chair­man Mar­tin De­mp­sey, and Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per, are sched­uled to de­liv­er a clas­si­fied brief­ing for the en­tire House.

Op­pon­ents of strik­ing Syr­ia say it may already be too late to win over the GOP-con­trolled cham­ber, where the path to pas­sage re­mains steep­est.

“It’s dead. Com­pletely dead,” Rep. Dev­in Nunes, R-Cal­if., an op­pon­ent of in­ter­ven­tion and mem­ber of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “The House, for sure, it’s not even go­ing to be close.” Nunes, elec­ted in 2002, ad­ded he has “nev­er been so sure about something in my whole ca­reer here.”

Even some with­in the pres­id­ent’s party are pub­licly ad­vising him to the pull the plug. Rep. Jim McGov­ern, D-Mass., said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Uni­on, “If I were the pres­id­ent, I would with­draw my re­quest.”

To turn the tide, the White House began ex­ecut­ing a two-pronged strategy over the week­end. First, there is the in­creased closed-door lob­by­ing ses­sions in Wash­ing­ton. Second, they’ve launched a ma­jor me­dia push to re­shape pub­lic opin­ion, in­clud­ing the re­lease of veri­fied videos show­ing the chem­ic­al at­tacks. On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis Mc­Donough spun through all the ma­jor shows. On Monday, Obama him­self is set to do in­ter­views with six net­works. On Tues­day, he will ad­dress the na­tion.

The of­fens­ive comes as me­dia-cre­ated vote tal­lies show Obama in deep trouble on a Syr­ia war-au­thor­iz­a­tion meas­ure. Still, con­gres­sion­al nose-coun­ters and strike pro­ponents, which in­clude both House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi and Re­pub­lic­an House Speak­er John Boehner, note that the ma­jor­ity of law­makers still have not re­ceived clas­si­fied brief­ings. “It’s pre­ma­ture,” said a Pelosi aide of the tal­lies.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., an op­pon­ent of in­volve­ment in Syr­ia, ex­plained the loom­ing lob­by­ing ef­fort this way: “The strategy among lead­er­ship is to present you with a clas­si­fied brief­ing and then, when the brief­ings are over, to tell you, ‘Now you have more in­form­a­tion than your con­stitu­ents, so it’s OK if you vote dif­fer­ently than they want you to vote.’”

Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., said as much last week. “There’s no ques­tion: What’s com­ing in is over­whelm­ingly neg­at­ive,” she told re­port­ers of con­stitu­ent feed­back about in­ter­ven­ing in Syr­ia. “But you see, then they don’t know what I know. They haven’t heard what I’ve heard.”

Not every­one agrees. “If Amer­ic­ans could read clas­si­fied docs, they’d be even more against #Syr­ia ac­tion,” Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a lead­ing liber­tari­an voice in the House, wrote on Twit­ter over the week­end.

The prob­lem for the White House is that even law­makers on the in­tel­li­gence pan­els aren’t uni­fied in sup­port of a strike. “My guess is that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the mem­bers on the [House] In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, at least on the Re­pub­lic­an side, are against it,” Nunes said. Those are typ­ic­ally the lead­er­ship’s top lieu­ten­ants in mak­ing the case on such na­tion­al se­cur­ity mat­ters.

Then there is the hangover from be­ing sold clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence in the lead-up to the war in Ir­aq. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Ver­mont, who op­poses get­ting in­volved in Syr­ia, said Fein­stein’s in­voc­a­tion of clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence “is a bit disin­genu­ous.”

“That’s play­ing on the war on Ir­aq and we got bad in­tel­li­gence and every­body feels they got burned on it,” Sanders told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

The selling of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s case be­hind closed doors is already in full swing. Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden hos­ted law­makers in the Situ­ation Room on Fri­day to make the case for in­ter­ven­tion. He fol­lowed that up with a din­ner Sunday to pitch some Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plans. Obama and oth­er of­fi­cials have been work­ing the phones with law­makers and im­port­ant caucuses, as well. Mc­Donough held con­fer­ence calls with the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus and His­pan­ic Caucus last week; Rice briefed mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus.

Still, there is grumbling on Cap­it­ol Hill about the White House’s scat­ter­shot out­reach. It did not go un­noticed, for in­stance, that Pres­id­ent Obama golfed on Sat­urday with his usu­al co­hort of friends and aides, rather than any waver­ing law­makers.

Rep. Adam King­zin­er, R-Ill., who is in fa­vor of a strike, said on ABC’s This Week that his of­fer earli­er in the week to help round up votes had gone un­ac­know­ledged. “I haven’t heard back from the White House yet,” Kin­zinger said. “I don’t even know who my White House li­ais­on is.”

Join­ing the White House this week in lob­by­ing Cap­it­ol Hill will be the Amer­ic­an Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, the power­ful pro-Is­rael lobby that is in fa­vor of a strike on Syr­ia. That ef­fort is seen as crit­ic­al to unit­ing war-weary Demo­crats and some more hawk­ish Re­pub­lic­ans who have ex­pressed skep­ti­cism about Obama’s pro­posed strikes.

“There’s no ques­tion when you get a call from the pres­id­ent or you get lob­bied by cam­paign con­trib­ut­ors, those things have an im­pact,” Sanders said.

Sanders, who caucuses with the Demo­crats, said Demo­crats he’s spoken with feel the tug of party loy­alty and not want­ing to un­der­cut Obama so pub­licly in the first year of his second term. But Sanders said such loy­alty doesn’t typ­ic­ally out­weigh over­whelm­ing pub­lic op­pos­i­tion.

“In my of­fice, 95 per­cent of the emails and phone calls we’re get­ting are in op­pos­i­tion,” he said. “Sen­at­ors and con­gresspeople are not stu­pid and if an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity in their dis­tricts are telling them not to vote to go to war I sus­pect they won’t sup­port that.”

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