Back in the Bubble, Will Congress Shift on Syria?

Getting lawmakers back to Washington, and away from constituents who oppose a Syria strike, is Obama’s last shot at securing support.

President Barack Obama answers questions during his new conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 30, 2013. The president said the US doesn't know how or when chemical weapons were used in Syria or who used them. 
AP
Shane Goldmacher
Sept. 9, 2013, 2 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.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4428) }}

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