On Wednesday, Obama and senior White House officials made more than 25 phone calls to lawmakers from both parties. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough arranged calls with the Progressive Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus in the House, while Blinken held a conference call with Jewish House members.
The administration also has held classified briefings for any lawmaker who requests one detailing evidence that the alleged Aug. 21 chemical attack was carried out by Assad’s regime. The administration has said that more than 1,400 civilians, including at least 426 children, were killed when rockets containing highly toxic sarin gas were launched from regime territory and landed on rebel strongholds or contested areas in the Damascus suburbs.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have participated in the Capitol Hill outreach. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Thursday that the United States must “respond decisively to this horrific attack” in Syria.
Obama spent most of the day Thursday in private meetings with world leaders but spoke briefly with reporters at the start of one session. Seated at a long table across from Abe, Obama spoke about their “joint recognition that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only a tragedy but also a violation of international law that must be addressed.”
The loudest critic of military action in Syria is Putin, who has scoffed at U.S. allegations about the attack. Putin welcomed Obama to the ornate Constantine Palace, once the summer playground for Russian czars, with a formal handshake and about 15 seconds of chitchat. The two leaders do not plan to meet here, although U.S. officials said Obama and Putin may interact informally on the summit’s sidelines.
Obama has argued forcefully that a U.S.-led military strike is needed to enforce an international ban on the use of chemical weapons and to degrade the ability of Assad’s forces to use them again in a brutal conflict with rebels that is in its third year.
The State Department said Thursday that Kerry, who has been the administration’s most visible supporter of military action in Syria, will travel to Europe over the weekend for consultations with allies and partners. He is scheduled first to speak with European Union counterparts who are meeting in Lithuania. In Paris, Kerry will meet with senior French officials and with Arab League representatives.
In Washington, many lawmakers said they remain unconvinced that the United States should engage militarily in Syria, even after closed-door classified briefings led by national security officials.
“I’ve had more phone calls on this issue than on any issue I’ve ever had since I got here in 2001, and my phone calls, e-mails, faxes are running 96 percent no,” said Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.). He said that there’s “absolutely no question” that Assad attacked innocent civilians but that “America has absolutely no strategic interest involved, and we should stay out of it.”
A growing number of liberals also oppose military action, including key allies of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who backs a strike. Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said, “I give the administration great credit for strongly making their case, but I still have many reservations about the unintended consequences of our actions.”
With a vote in the House several days away at least, aides said Pelosi has not started reaching out to individual lawmakers because she believes that colleagues need time to review hundreds of classified documents and other materials.
To help rally support for the authorization, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is asking the CIA to prepare DVDs for members of Congress containing video footage that supports the administration’s claims about the alleged chemical attack.
Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Thursday that the video evidence will help inform lawmakers’ decisions.
Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons “between 11 and 14 times before” the Aug. 21 attack “but in small amounts,” Feinstein said. “And I looked at that as if they were testing it in some way. It is a very serious situation, and Assad’s got to understand there is a penalty for this.”
O’Keefe reported from Washington. Scott Wilson, Karen DeYoung, Greg Miller and Juliet Eilperin in Washington, Will Englund in St. Petersburg and Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.