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.