WASHINGTON –- President Obama faces a two-front battle to win the support of Congress for his plan to strike the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, needing to convince both the skeptical representatives of a war-weary public and more hawkish lawmakers critical of his handling of Syrian crisis.
Voices from both camps made their arguments Sunday on talk shows and in the halls of the Capitol, where some members returned for the first time in nearly a month for a classified briefing from national security officials –- the first such briefing on Syria open to the full membership of the House of Representatives.
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.”
He cited new evidence, obtained just in the previous 24 hours, establishing that the Syrian regime used sarin gas in the Aug. 21 attack on civilians that is being cited as the primary justification for military action.
Syrian President Bashar 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 from across the ideological spectrum, members of Congress raised doubts about the value of even the kind of limited engagement Obama has called for.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky commended Obama for asking for congressional authorization but also predicted that passage on Capitol Hill sometime after Sept. 9 was a break-even proposition.
“Absolutely, if Congress votes this down, we should not be involved in the Syrian war,” Paul said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And I think it’s at least 50/50 whether the House will vote down involvement in the civil war.”
Paul, a leader of an increasingly powerful faction of conservatives that has argued for a less hawkish foreign policy, said he did not see “American interests involved on either side of this Syrian war.”
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Obama was not going far enough.
He said he would also oppose authorizing force, unless the White House first lays out “a strategy and a plan” to permanently stop the Assad regime from ever again using chemical weapons in the civil war, and signaled he would use Obama’s offer to seek congressional approval to press the administration and the Pentagon to make sure that a U.S. reprisal is a clear warning to Assad that he risks losing his hold over the war-torn country if any more chemical attacks are unleashed upon the Syrian people.
“We need to have a strategy and a plan,” McCain said on CBS “Face the Nation.” “In our view, the best way to eliminate the threat of Bashar Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons would be the threat of his removal from power. And that, I believe, has to be part of what we tell the American people.”
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said it would be difficult to win a vote in the House because Obama has “not made the case.” He criticized Obama for even seeking congressional authorization for what he said he was empowered to do unilaterally.
“I’m hoping by the time next week comes around -- and hopefully, the president can make his case -- that he will be able to get a majority of the House of Representatives. Right now, it would be difficult,” he said. “
Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia warned that without convincing assurance that the U.S. will not be drawn into an all-out military conflict in Syria, he would vote against using force. “My constituents are war-weary,” he said on “Face The Nation.” “They don’t want to see us involved in this.”
Kerry revealed on the TV talk shows that sarin was used in the chemical weapons fired upon Syrian civilians, citing new tests of hair and blood samples on first responders in East Damascus. He said hoped the new evidence will help persuade Congress that U.S. military cruise missiles are the right response now that Syria has crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons.
Kerry also made a broader case that American credibility was on the line, and that hostile regimes in Iran and North Korea would be closely monitoring the vote.
“As the Congress weighs the potential damage to America’s credibility in the world, I think the members of Congress will choose to do the right thing,” he said.