September 9, 2013

President intensifies lobbying on Syria

But even supporters of military action concede that the White House faces an uphill battle.

By Peter Wallsten / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President Obama will begin an intensive public and private lobbying push this week to win congressional support for a limited missile strike against Syria, but even some of the strongest supporters on Capitol Hill for military action are pessimistic that the White House will succeed.

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President Obama leaves the Rose Garden at the White House on Aug. 31 after stating that United States should take military action against Syria in response to a deadly chemical weapons.

2013 file photo/The Associated Press

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Obama plans to meet with Senate Democrats on Tuesday, senior Senate aides said. Millions of Americans will see him make his case during network television interviews Monday and a prime-time address from the White House on Tuesday in which the president will argue that not punishing Syrian leader Bashar Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons would embolden his regime and allies such as Hezbollah and Iran.

Behind the scenes, Vice President Joe Biden was scheduled to have dinner Sunday night with Republican senators, 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 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 blame the White House for an inept lobbying effort and a 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. Following 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 last weekend 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.

Kinzinger lamented on ABC that "it's going to be very difficult for (Obama) to get votes," pointing to the difficulty of the Syria issue itself 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.

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