Behind the scenes, Obama joined Vice President Biden on Sunday night for a family-style Italian dinner with about a dozen Republican senators at the vice president’s residence, while other senior officials were set Monday to offer closed-door briefings to the full House — the continuation of what White House officials described as a full-throttle effort to win over skeptical lawmakers in both parties.
Yet several of the administration’s key backers on Syria said Sunday that the effort may be too little, too late, coming after a congressional recess in which lawmakers heard overwhelming opposition from constituents and had limited access to the classified information that formed the basis of the administration’s arguments.
“It’s an open question today what the House would do,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a supporter of limited military action. “The real challenge has been that members of Congress are scattered all over the country.”
Two key Republican backers of Obama’s Syria position used Sunday television interviews to criticize the White House for what they call its inept lobbying effort and muddled strategy on Syria dating to the onset of that country’s civil war.
Obama last year described the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that would change his calculus on U.S. involvement in Syria. After U.S. findings that Assad used poison gas on Aug. 21, killing more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children, Obama vowed a firm U.S. response. Then he surprised lawmakers when he said he would seek congressional authorization for a military strike.
“The only thing more confusing to me [than] what their Syria strategy has been the last two years is their strategy to try to get buy-in by the representatives in Congress and the American people,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “It is a confusing mess up to this point, and that has been, I think, their biggest challenge on what is an incredibly important issue.”
Rogers said the White House did “an awful job explaining to the American people what is in our national security — what is the national United States interests in any level of engagement in a place like Syria.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Iraq war veteran elected as part of the tea-party wave of 2010, complained on ABC’s “This Week” and in a Washington Post interview Friday that the White House didn’t respond to his offer of help in recent days to rally support among skeptical Republicans for the Syria resolution.
“We reached out to the White House and offered to help round up support, and haven’t heard back,” he said. “I don’t even know who my White House liaison is.”
Kinzinger lamented on ABC that “it’s going to be very difficult for [Obama] to get votes,” pointing to the difficulty of the Syria conflict as well as the president’s cool relations with lawmakers in both parties.
“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.
“There are many of us who are very worried about the United States getting more entangled in the Syrian civil war,” said Van Hollen, who has co-sponsored an alternative resolution backing a more limited action.
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) wrote on his Facebook page Thursday that, despite a week of briefings from numerous top officials, including Rice, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “I am still not convinced of the wisdom of a U.S. missile strike in Syria.” He added on Twitter: “Tally from constituents calling my office, emailing, and writing about Syria: 1135 opposed to U.S. action, 18 for.”
The White House’s difficulties in Congress are evident in the latest Washington Post whip count. As of Sunday, 227 House members either opposed or leaned against military action, while 181 remained undecided and just 25 were in favor. Twenty-seven senators were opposed or leaning against, with 23 in favor and 50 undecided.
On Sunday, after hearing McDonough make the administration’s case, some Democrats remained wary.
Moments after McDonough spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who voted against the Senate resolution in last week’s Foreign Relations Committee meeting, said: “I haven’t changed my mind.”
Udall said he did not question the evidence of the chemical weapons attack — only whether the administration was choosing the best course of action.
“The American people don’t want to be embroiled in a Middle Eastern civil war,” Udall told NBC’s David Gregory. Udall added that the United States could take stronger diplomatic action, such as continuing to work for broader action by the United Nations. “I’m very disappointed that the administration has given up — they have given up on the United Nations and on rallying the world,” he said.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), saying she was leaning against supporting a military strike, said on NBC that she questioned the direct U.S. national security interest.
“I haven’t heard that Assad wants to use weapons against us,” she said. “I haven’t heard that he wants to use weapons against our allies, that he’s moving them to terrorist organizations. So I’m asking, where is the national security issue?”
Ed O’Keefe and Paul Kane contributed to this report.