Weekend Push Planned on Syria Resolution as Many in Congress Waver

Sen. Harry Reid
National Journal
Billy House and Mike Magner
Add to Briefcase
Billy House Mike Magner
Sept. 5, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

Three days of arm-twist­ing and long-dis­tance lob­by­ing lie ahead for law­makers and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion as neither the House nor the Sen­ate ap­pear to have enough votes to pass a res­ol­u­tion au­thor­iz­ing mil­it­ary ac­tion against Syr­ia.

The fi­nal week­end of a 37-day re­cess will find most mem­bers of Con­gress still in their dis­tricts be­fore the fall ses­sion be­gins next week, and if they spend any time listen­ing to their con­stitu­ents there could be even less sup­port for U.S. re­tali­ation against the Syr­i­an re­gime’s use of chem­ic­al weapons.

Polls this week have con­sist­ently shown that a firm ma­jor­ity — at least 60 per­cent — of Amer­ic­ans op­pose a strike on Syr­ia as ad­voc­ated by Pres­id­ent Obama and backed by most top con­gres­sion­al lead­ers in both parties. So far the bulk of the rank and file on Cap­it­ol Hill ap­pear to be lean­ing in the same dir­ec­tion.

“A huge, bi­par­tis­an ma­jor­ity has re­cog­nized that a uni­lat­er­al at­tack on Syr­ia is not our re­spons­ib­il­ity, it won’t ac­com­plish any­thing, it’s ex­pens­ive, and it’s dan­ger­ous,” said Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who is­sued a news re­lease Thursday es­tim­at­ing that House mem­bers are lin­ing up against a use-of-force res­ol­u­tion by a ra­tio of 3-1.

In the Sen­ate, an aide to Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., told Re­u­ters that Re­id is “guardedly op­tim­ist­ic” about Sen­ate ap­prov­al of a res­ol­u­tion au­thor­iz­ing lim­ited mil­it­ary strikes against Syr­ia. But a sur­vey by The New York Times on Thursday showed only 25 sen­at­ors, in­clud­ing nine Re­pub­lic­ans, sup­port the res­ol­u­tion so far. The As­so­ci­ated Press re­por­ted that 34 sen­at­ors were sup­port­ing or lean­ing to­ward mil­it­ary ac­tion, while 26 were op­posed or lean­ing against, and 40 were un­de­cided.

The Sen­ate will con­vene briefly in pro forma ses­sion on Fri­day so the res­ol­u­tion ap­proved Wed­nes­day by the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee can be filed and de­bate on a mo­tion to pro­ceed to the res­ol­u­tion can be­gin Monday, a Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily. A Sen­ate floor vote on the res­ol­u­tion ap­pears likely to come Wed­nes­day, which is also the 12th an­niversary of the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

Two Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors, Dav­id Vit­ter of Louisi­ana and Mike Lee of Utah, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., form­ally an­nounced on Thursday that they will vote against the res­ol­u­tion. “Giv­en the case that has been presen­ted to me, I be­lieve that a mil­it­ary strike against Syr­ia at this time is the wrong course of ac­tion,” Manchin said in a state­ment.

One of the sup­port­ers of a mil­it­ary strike, Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., at­ten­ded a closed-door brief­ing on Syr­ia with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials and said af­ter­ward that sen­at­ors were shown a film on the de­bil­it­at­ing ef­fects of chem­ic­al weapons.

“It’s hor­rendous,” Fein­stein said, ac­cord­ing to the AP. But Fein­stein ac­know­ledged that pub­lic sup­port for re­tali­ation against Syr­ia is thin. “There’s no ques­tion: What’s com­ing in is over­whelm­ingly neg­at­ive,” she said. “But you see, then they don’t know what I know. They haven’t heard what I’ve heard.”

Faced with so much res­ist­ance, the White House is rev­ving up for an all-out blitz through the week­end to win back­ing for the res­ol­u­tion, and Obama — ex­pec­ted to re­turn this week­end from the Group of 20 sum­mit in Rus­sia — can­celed a planned trip to Cali­for­nia that had been set for Monday.

“We’re go­ing to con­tin­ue to make the case to mem­bers,” said Deputy Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Ben Rhodes, who also said the num­ber of law­makers who sup­port a mil­it­ary re­sponse is in­creas­ing. “We un­der­stand the ob­lig­a­tion that we have to provide them with in­form­a­tion to ex­plain our think­ing, to ex­plain the nature of the mil­it­ary ac­tion we’re con­tem­plat­ing. We’ll keep do­ing that, and we’re con­fid­ent that we’ll get a res­ol­u­tion passed.”

Mean­while, some law­makers are schedul­ing town halls Sat­urday and Sunday to get more in­put from con­stitu­ents about what they should do. Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., and Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., both an­nounced town halls, while Rep. Doug Lam­born, R-Colo., said he will take calls Sat­urday morn­ing on a ra­dio show.

“This is not our fight — we’re go­ing to pick sides between Ir­an and [Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad] on one side and al-Qaida on the oth­er? It makes ab­so­lutely no sense,” said Rep. John Cul­ber­son, R-Texas, as he was leav­ing a closed-door in­tel­li­gence brief­ing at the Cap­it­ol on Thursday.

A Sept. 11 vote in either the Sen­ate or the House would give “clar­ity” to the de­bate, said Cul­ber­son, be­cause op­pon­ents will be able to “hon­or the vic­tims of 9/11 by re­fus­ing to sup­port al-Qaida.” He ad­ded, “That’s the per­fect day to do it.” Cul­ber­son said he’d like the House to be able to vote on 9/11 but that House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., has already in­formed law­makers that the Sen­ate will prob­ably vote that day. If the res­ol­u­tion is de­feated there, the House may not even have to take a vote.

For now, Cul­ber­son said his of­fice has been get­ting hun­dreds of calls from con­stitu­ents, with all but a few op­posed to U.S. ac­tion.

Even some of the pres­id­ent’s sup­port­ers seemed to be sens­ing on Thursday that win­ning the vote re­mained an up­hill climb, and were ur­ging that he take his case more dir­ectly to the na­tion.

“I have not de­cided yet,” said Rep. Ha­keem Jef­fries, D-N.Y., of wheth­er he’ll sup­port a Syr­ia res­ol­u­tion. “This is an is­sue that is on the minds of every­one I rep­res­ent. An over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of cases have made clear they are con­cerned about the pos­sib­il­ity of go­ing to war — a deeply held sen­ti­ment.”

But Jef­fries said he is con­tinu­ing to weigh what to do. “This is the pres­id­ent of the United States. I trust him. I sup­port him. And I’ll give him every op­por­tun­ity to make the strongest pos­sible case,” he said.

Mean­while, ad­min­is­tra­tion in­tel­li­gence brief­ings for law­makers go on. On Thursday, those meet­ings at the Cap­it­ol in­cluded an ap­pear­ance by Tony Blinken, Obama’s deputy na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser. Brief­ings will con­tin­ue early next week, in­clud­ing a meet­ing between Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice and mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus, a key bloc of mostly lib­er­al House mem­bers that has seen some in­tern­al frac­tur­ing over the is­sue.

The House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee has sched­uled a hear­ing for Tues­day on the top­ic of Syr­ia, with De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Mar­tin De­mp­sey, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as wit­nesses.

One group that law­makers may not be hear­ing from is a con­tin­gent of lob­by­ists from Rus­sia. Ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al news re­ports, Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin sug­ges­ted his rep­res­ent­at­ives should dir­ectly lobby Con­gress not to at­tack Syr­ia, and an of­fi­cial re­quest for meet­ings with House and Sen­ate lead­ers was sent by the Rus­si­an Em­bassy on Wed­nes­day.

Re­id de­clined, ac­cord­ing to CNN, and House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, flatly re­fused. “The speak­er has de­clined the Rus­si­an Em­bassy’s re­quest that he meet with a del­eg­a­tion,” Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel said.

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