WASHINGTON — President Obama’s hopes of winning congressional approval for a U.S. military strike on Syria could come down to the persuasion skills of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal who was a leading critic of the war in Iraq.
With a nod to the historical irony, she is arguing to her Democratic colleagues that Syria is different from the earlier conflict. She spoke passionately in an interview about the “human rights catastrophe” in Syria, saying a “limited, targeted” attack “that will be over fast” could prevent the future use of weapons of mass destruction. And she called on Obama to make a more forceful argument for military action.
“I do think that it would be easier if there was a stronger case being made to the American people,” she said by phone from San Francisco. “People have to really know more about why the president has made this decision.”
Pelosi is expected to intensify her efforts next week when Congress returns from its summer recess, pressing her 199 fellow Democrats in sessions in her Capitol office and on the House floor and meetings of the full caucus. Congressional aides expect the Senate to vote next week, with the House to follow perhaps the week after.
Pelosi says she is not using high-pressure tactics such as those that helped her eke out a victory for the president’s healthcare plan.
“I haven’t asked one person for a vote,” she said in the Thursday interview. “I’ve asked them to consider the intelligence and to give us their views on what they might be willing to vote for.
“This is not one of those things where you can talk people into something. All you can do is supply them the information and hope they draw the conclusion that you wish.”
With a number of her longtime liberal allies against a strike — or leaning that way — the coming days could be some of the toughest for Pelosi since she assumed control of her famously fractious party a decade ago. In effect, she is caught between the president’s wishes, a fractured Democratic caucus and the traditionally antiwar sentiments of her San Francisco base.
“She’s now squarely at the center of the emerging congressional debate,” said Don Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. “She has to round up votes for her caucus, on an issue where public opinion polls make clear that Americans don’t support what the president has in mind.”
Pelosi, a 26-year House veteran who became the first female speaker in 2007 before losing the gavel to Republican John A. Boehner in 2011, has delivered before for Obama, most notably pushing his cherished healthcare overhaul through the House in 2010.
But her present task could be more difficult.
During the healthcare debate, Pelosi exercised the political leverage that comes with the speakership, using her intimate knowledge of her fellow Democrats and their needs in order to win votes. She marched two California holdouts off the House floor into her private office, helping secure their votes by promising to give more attention to water issues important in their Central Valley districts.
Pelosi, 73, is one of the nation’s most polarizing political figures — Republicans highlight her in fundraising pitches and campaign ads against Democrats throughout the country — but she is highly regarded among her own caucus members, who are especially thankful for the gobs of money she has raised for their campaigns.
“She may be the best I ever saw at persuading individuals to come to her point of view,” said Dennis Cardoza, a former Democratic congressman from California.
Her challenge is apparent from the number of Democrats, including fellow Californians, who have already come out against a strike on Syria. While Boehner backs military action — a rare point of agreement with Pelosi in the hyper-partisan House — it’s unclear how many votes he will deliver from his party members. Passage may well rely on strong support by the president’s own party.
Pushing for military action against Syria, even in a limited way, would seem an awkward position for Pelosi, whose party won control of the House in 2006 by tapping into public frustration with President George W. Bush over the war in Iraq.
But it is not the first time she has confounded some of her fellow Democrats. She spawned tension as speaker when she moved war funding bills at a time when antiwar colleagues sought to cut off money. After failing to compel Bush to accept timetables for U.S. troop withdrawals, she opposed cutting off funding to troops in harm’s way.
“It was very unpopular, and I have to tell you, I’m not sure I ever recovered amongst some on the left for that,” she recalled during a news conference in December, referring to outside groups.
Her view that Obama could order a strike on Syria without congressional approval also puts her at odds with a number of fellow Democrats.
“I think Nancy Pelosi understands that this is not a time to be undermining the president and his foreign policy,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who has drafted a resolution providing a more limited use of force than the White House has proposed. “I’m sure it rankles in some parts of the left of our caucus, but she’s here to be the leader of the whole Democratic caucus and to be part of the team of leadership in the United States.”
In part, Pelosi’s position echoes the one she took in 1999, when she backed President Clinton’s decision to participate in the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign against the Serbian military in Kosovo to prevent the Serbs from “cleansing” ethnic Albanians from the region. There were reminders of that when she spoke earlier this week about Democrats’ options:
“Do they want to ignore the fact that this humanitarian disaster took place or not? And then there’s the larger issue of Syria’s behavior if they get away with this.”
Those close to Pelosi say she doesn’t have a vote count of her caucus, but they say that she will know the precise number as the roll call draws closer.
Among the challenges she faces is timing: She is seeking support for an unpopular cause from members pondering the impact on next year’s election.
“All of my colleagues have been inundated with phone calls, emails, and almost unanimously, people don’t want us to strike Syria. They’re fatigued,” freshman Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) said at a congressional hearing this week.
War fatigue was also obvious this week in Pelosi’s own district, as was ambivalence about a military strike.
“Just because we’ve positioned ourselves as a global power doesn’t mean it’s our position to go in and police the world,” Leah Gibbas, 29, a sales and marketing consultant, said in San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood. But she also noted that Pelosi “probably knows more and is more of an expert” than she is.
In San Francisco, Pelosi routinely draws criticism and even picketing from those who portray her as insufficiently liberal. It is quite possibly the only city in America where Pelosi would be jeered as a right-wing warmonger, as she was when she opposed terminating funds for U.S. troops during the Iraq war.
Still, there is little electoral downside for her: She won reelection last year with 85% of the vote.
Asked Thursday whether she was getting grief in her district over her stance, she laughed.
“What would you expect in my, shall we say, outspoken district?” she asked.
“I have the most enormous respect for my constituents and their interest in peace.... Now the case has to be made as to why this [military action] should be allowed to go forward.”
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak in San Francisco contributed to this report.