Weekend Push Planned on Syria Resolution as Many in Congress Waver

Sen. Harry Reid
National Journal
Billy House and Mike Magner
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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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