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

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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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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."

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 and 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, the Hispanic Caucus and Jewish lawmakers. National security adviser Susan 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 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 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."

The latest Washington Post whip count Sunday showed that 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.


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