WASHINGTON — As Congress approaches a critical vote on Syria, Maine’s delegation is hearing from large numbers of constituents who staunchly oppose U.S. military strikes against the Syrian government, which is accused of gassing its own people.
The lopsided feedback – more than 1,100 opposed to military strikes and 21 supportive, according to one congressional office -– shows the disconnect between public opinion and the Obama administration’s hard-line position on Syria.
That disconnect increases the pressure on lawmakers who are struggling over whether U.S. military involvement will help or hurt the situation in an already unstable region.
“If I decide to vote in a way that’s inconsistent with those who contacted my office, I owe them an explanation,” said independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who estimated that 90 percent of the more than 1,000 calls and emails his office has received oppose military action.
“In all my years of public service, this is just about the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to deal with,” King told reporters in Maine on Wednesday evening after returning from two days of briefings and hearings in Washington.
The office of Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud offered an estimate of 800 contacts on the issue, with most opposing military action.
Emails and faxes to Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office were one-sided: 1,134 opposed to the use of military force in Syria and just 21 in favor, as of Wednesday afternoon.
“Every one of the people I have talked to said in the plainest words, ‘Please don’t get involved,’” said Pingree’s spokesman, Willy Ritch, who has helped answer calls in the Maine offices.
Representatives for Republican Sen. Susan Collins did not provide numbers Wednesday, but said most of the people who have contacted her offices oppose military action.
Staffers in the congressional offices said most of the people submitting opinions appear to be acting independently, but there are also clear signs — such as identically worded messages — that groups on both sides of the issue are helping to organize some of the feedback, even if they don’t always identify themselves.
“We are seeing some organized effort around this,” said Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for King.
National polls suggest that Americans are leery of getting further involved in Syria. Fifty-nine percent of respondents opposed military action in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, and 48 percent opposed it in a Pew Research Center poll.
The Obama administration’s push for congressional support took a first step forward Wednesday when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 in support of a resolution authorizing limited use of military force. Republicans and Democrats were on both sides of the issue, reflecting schisms within both parties.
All members of Congress are privy to some classified information. Lawmakers on the two chambers’ intelligence committees and some other committees have direct access to more sensitive documents and to top intelligence officials.
Collins and King serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, so they have been much more involved in the Syria issue than Pingree and Michaud.
Neither has staked out a position, but both are likely regarded as key votes, given their committee assignments. King also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Collins serves on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
Collins spent most of Wednesday in the highly secured Intelligence Committee room and met with the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, as well as representatives from the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
She also participated in a Intelligence Committee briefing Tuesday and plans to attend another Thursday.
“I have also benefited from many conversations with my constituents,” Collins said in a prepared statement. “At this point, I have not reached a decision on how I will vote on this serious matter. I continue to have many questions about the consequences of military action.”
King participated in three classified briefings in Washington and attended Tuesday’s spirited public hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a spectator, albeit one with a vote on the Senate floor.
“I am genuinely undecided on this,” King said in an interview before flying back to Maine. “I am listening and trying to learn as much as I can.”
In July, King returned from a fact-finding trip to two of Syria’s neighbors — Jordan and Turkey — more resolute that the U.S. should play a larger role in ending the Syrian conflict.
King and Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee — said at the time that the U.S. should work with partner nations to exert additional “military pressure” on the Syrian government without committing ground forces.
They also urged the Obama administration to continue arming “properly vetted” rebel forces and to consider targeted military strikes.
On Wednesday, King said that language calling on the administration to “consider” targeted strikes was as far as he would go at the time, and that he is still weighing the pros and cons of such action.
“There are no good options, there are no easy answers and there is risk” with any response, King said.
Maine’s two House members said they plan to attend briefings on Syria after returning to Washington next week. Pingree participated in a briefing with top administration officials via telephone last weekend.
Pingree has said she is “inclined” to vote against authorizing military strikes. Michaud has said he is still undecided.
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald.
– Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.
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