President Obama’s call for military action in Syria encountered broad skepticism on Sunday as lawmakers gathered at the Capitol for a classified briefing with administration officials.
Members emerged from the meeting expressing deep doubts about an assault on Syria, putting into sharp relief the challenge facing Obama as he seeks passage of a resolution authorizing the strikes.
“To me there [are] profoundly unanswered questions about effectiveness, about what happens next, about whether we have any international support out there at all for military action and whether this is a wise idea,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.).
While it's unclear how deeply the concern about attacking Syria extends into the rank-and-file, there are signs that the votes on using force could become nail-biters for the White House.
Opposition to a bombardment is coming from both parties, and is expected to be particularly strong in the House, where liberal Democrats and Tea Party-supported Republicans have questioned the wisdom of intervening in Syria’s bloody civil war.
While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has backed Obama’s push for military strikes, one of her top lieutenants on Sunday signaled that House Democrats would not be pressured to vote for Obama’s plan.
“Any time you are talking about use of military force, I don’t believe any member can be whipped into doing one thing or the other,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, who stressed that he is not personally opposed to military action.
“It is a vote of conscience, and I think this is the supreme vote that any member of Congress can take, so this is not going to be a matter of trying to enforce party discipline or to vote for or against the president,” he said.
Asked whether the Syria resolution would pass if a vote were held today, Becerra demurred.
“I couldn’t tell you,” he replied.
Even in the Senate, where more hawkish views on foreign policy typically prevail, senators balked at the breadth of Obama’s war powers request. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said lawmakers planned to revise the language before bringing it up for a vote.
The White House appeared to recognize the challenge that lay ahead, and vowed to “flood the zone” with meetings and briefings intended to assuage doubts before Congress reconvenes on Sept. 9.
In addition to Sunday’s briefing, the White House invited the chairmen and ranking members of six national security committees to meet with Obama on Tuesday at the White House.
Members of Obama’s Cabinet, meanwhile, continued to make the case for targeted retaliation against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons.
In a blitz of the Sunday news shows, Secretary of State John Kerry said the administration has evidence that sarin gas was used in an attack on Aug. 21 that left nearly 1,500 Syrians dead, many of them children.
“So this case is building and this case will build, and I don’t believe that my former colleagues in the United States Senate, in the House, will turn their backs on all of our interests, on the credibility of our country, on the norm with respect to the enforcement of the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons which has been in place since 1925,” Kerry said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Obama on Saturday made clear that he doesn’t need Congress’s approval to use force, but has not said what action he would take if lawmakers vote down the war powers resolution.
Kerry refused to even consider the possibility that the White House would be rebuffed on Syria, stating flatly on ABC: “We are not going to lose this vote.”
But Democrats suggested they were a long way from endorsing the use of military force, with some even questioning whether the evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Syria is strong enough to justify such a step.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Sunday’s classified briefing “quite frankly raised more questions than it answered.”
“I found the evidence presented by administration officials to be circumstantial,” Harkin said in a statement.
Harkin didn’t rule out voting for a Syria strike, but expressed the reservations that many lawmakers harbor about engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East.
“We should not rush into what may become a new open-ended war without broad international backing or a full understanding of the ramifications,” he said.
Across the aisle, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) said he would not vote to authorize strikes.
Burgess said the mood in his district is against it, and that he “didn’t hear anything” in the briefing that would give him a different view.
“There are a lot of risks here, the downsides are great,” Burgess said.
Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who led calls demanding that the White House seek congressional permission before attacking Syria, also said he’s a “no” vote, at least for the moment.
“If I had to vote today, given what I know, I would vote ‘no,’ but I’m also open to the debate,” Rigell said.
Other lawmakers appeared to be on the fence about the war resolution after Sunday’s briefing.
“I am not there yet,” said Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.).
Asked if a resolution would pass if the vote were held today, Hahn called it a “very good question” and added: “I feel right now it is evenly divided.”
“I think members of Congress were divided in terms of ‘what does that mean?’ Is this a reason to go to war, what is the objectives of going to war, what authorization are we actually giving our president? I think there was a lot of concern in the room,” she added.
But not everyone expressed qualms about a show of force in Syria.
“I think the resolution may be altered but I am basically in support,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
“The evidence at this point [of a chemical weapons attack] is overwhelming,” he said.
This story was updated at 10:40 p.m.