WASHINGTON — Members of Congress from across the political spectrum reacted with deep skepticism Sunday to President Obama’s bid for approval of strikes against Syria, with lawmakers raising doubts about whether a vote would succeed.
Few of the approximately 100 members of Congress who returned to Washington for a classified intelligence briefing Sunday said they would support the administration’s request to authorize the use of force, even though they showed little doubt that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government was behind the alleged chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21.
The administration now appears to face a two-front battle to win the support of Congress, needing to convince skeptical representatives of a war-weary public on the one hand and more hawkish lawmakers seeking an even tougher response on the other. And it has just more than a week to do so.
“The administration better make a whale of a case or I think they’re very much in danger, certainly in the House, of losing this,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said.
The president stayed out of the public eye, leaving it to Secretary of State John F. Kerry to argue in a round of network interviews that the administration’s case was “growing stronger by the day.”
Kerry said new evidence, obtained in the previous 24 hours, establishes that the Syrian government used sarin gas in the Aug. 21 attack on civilians that is being cited as the justification for military action.
Assad has joined Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler as the only individuals to have used chemical weapons against their own people, Kerry said as he made the case for Congress to support a resolution authorizing force.
“I can’t contemplate that the Congress would turn its back on all of that responsibility, and the fact that we would have in fact granted impunity to a ruthless dictator to continue to gas his people,” Kerry said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Those are the stakes. And I don’t believe the Congress will do that.”
But there were already indications that Congress could do just that.
Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest-serving member of the Senate, told reporters that the draft resolution sent to Congress on Saturday will be amended this week when senators begin to hold hearings on the issue, and that the Judiciary Committee he chairs has already begun working on alternative wording that would narrow the scope of the mission Congress would authorize.
“I will not support a blank check to go to war in Syria. But I will support a very narrowly drawn authorization for the specific purpose of deterring future chemical weapons use in Syria and other places around the world,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “And I will certainly oppose efforts that seem to have been articulated by some people to actually broaden the mandate.”
Such a narrowing might be done at the expense of support from more hawkish members such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who say the administration lacks a plan to sufficiently affect the civil war and remove Assad from power. Senior administration officials indicated they would frame the decision before lawmakers in the starkest terms, as Kerry began to do Sunday: act to punish a dictator or bear responsibility for any resulting bloodshed and diminished U.S. credibility.
The White House was working furiously behind the scenes to shore up support. The president, vice president and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough called House and Senate members Sunday, and Obama is to keep working the phones Monday before his departure for Sweden and Russia, where he will try to bolster international support. Other officials planned another conference call for House Democrats.
White House officials said they will continue to release intelligence painting a vivid portrait of the gas attack. According to one participant in Sunday’s Capitol Hill briefing, a member of the administration responded to a pointed question from a lawmaker with a question of his own, asking what the lawmakers viewed as Congress’ obligation in light of the use of a toxin like sarin. Sarin, the most volatile of the nerve agents, can cause symptoms within seconds, escalating from a runny nose to convulsions, paralysis and breathing failure that leads to death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The high-stakes effort is necessary only because of Obama’s surprise decision to seek a congressional mandate for military action, a decision lawmakers welcomed even as they expressed doubts about whether it would succeed.
“I think this was a big institutional victory for Congress,” said Cole of Oklahoma. “This is Congress reclaiming some of its war-making authority. And probably it was a political calculation on the executive branch that they had to concede on this.”
Members of Congress will now face that same political pressure, he added.
“Every member here knows they’re going to cast this vote, and in a year or less — because there are primaries — they will be on the ballot and this will be a vote that they have to defend and explain it.”
Several members, as well as aides to House Republican leaders, said the respective parties were not actively “whipping” or trying to influence the vote on what they consider to be a matter of conscience. The vote probably will cut across party lines, as was the case with a July vote on an amendment to curtail the National Security Agency’s data collection programs.
“This is not a partisan issue,” said Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who led an effort to pressure the White House to seek a congressional vote. “This will be a vote of deep conscience, given the severity and consequences of taking military action, particularly in that unstable region.”