“You can’t begin to build a relationship with Congress for the first time when you need their support on something like this,” he said.
Underscoring the White House’s heightened sensitivity to the challenge ahead in Congress, an official phoned Kinzinger within hours of his Sunday ABC appearance. Zach Hunter, the lawmaker’s spokesman, said the official “expressed a willingness to work together this week,” although neither Hunter nor a White House spokesman would say which official placed the call.
The president’s arguments were previewed Sunday by his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, who used appearances on every major television network to make a case that appeared tailored to soothe skeptical liberals and foreign policy hawks alike — focusing on the human catastrophe of a mass chemical attack as well as the potential fallout for the United States and its allies if Assad goes unpunished.
McDonough referred repeatedly to graphic videos released Saturday showing what officials said was the aftermath of the Syrian poison gas attack in the Damascus suburbs. And he argued that the lack of a U.S. response would strengthen other American foes, including Iran.
“The question now is, for Congress to resolve this week is: Are there consequences for a dictator who would have used those weapons to gas to death hundreds of children?” McDonough asked during his appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” “The answer to that question . . . will be followed closely in Damascus, but will also be followed closely in Tehran, among Lebanese Hezbollah, and others. So, this is a very important week.”
In the past two weeks, according to officials, the administration has held discussions with at least 85 senators and more than 165 House members.
Much of the White House’s attention has focused on House Democrats, with McDonough, Biden and others holding conversations with members of the Progressive Caucus, members of the Hispanic Caucus and Jewish lawmakers. National security adviser Susan E. Rice will meet this week with the Congressional Black Caucus.
Van Hollen said he participated in a three-hour session with Biden on Friday in the White House Situation Room aimed at persuading undecided Democrats.
But, Van Hollen said, challenges remain with Democrats. He pointed to concern among many on the left about language in the resolution approved last week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and pushed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), describing U.S. policy as seeking to “change the momentum” of the Syria conflict and topple Assad. The intent was to give the Obama administration a broader hand in pursuing its military strategy in Syria.