Administration courts CBC on Syria

President Obama and national security adviser Susan Rice hosted members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) at the White House on Monday in an effort to rally wary lawmakers behind the administration’s plan to strike Syria.

The meeting underscores the high stakes for Obama’s second term as the president fights to avoid an early lame-duck label by passing a use-of-force authorization through Congress in the face of fierce headwinds.

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Black Democrats are generally among Obama’s most loyal supporters, but they’ve emerged as some of the most skeptical voices regarding the president’s proposal to launch limited missile strikes against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in response to alleged chemical attacks against civilians.

Only a handful of CBC members have endorsed Obama’s plan, while many more are either undecided or openly opposing the measure. Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) has yet to take a position on the issue.

Many CBC members are expressing concerns that strikes on Syria could defy international protocols and bog the United States down in yet another expensive Middle Eastern conflict. Their resistance leaves Obama with the heavy lift of trying to persuade the lawmakers that a military intervention is in the country’s best interest.

The fate of the resolution could rest on the president’s ability to sway on-the-fence CBC members, as a great number of House Republicans are vowing to oppose the measure and Obama will need as many Democrats as possible to get the proposal through the lower chamber.

Early indications were that the meeting did little to convince the lawmakers that strikes are necessary.

Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.) said afterward that he”s “very skeptical about going into another war and extending ourselves.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said she’s also not ready to support the strikes.

“I am solidly undecided,” she said.

The issue has put CBC leaders in a pickle. On one hand they want to support Obama, the nation’s first black president, and strengthen his hand ahead of high-stakes battles over government spending, raising the debt ceiling and (perhaps) immigration reform. On the other, they’re leery of entering yet another Middle Eastern conflict after a decade in Iraq. 

The dynamics have left many CBC members walking a fine line as they wrestle with the Syria vote, voicing strong reservations about the strikes even as they’re going out of their way to emphasize their support for Obama more generally.

“The president, of course, has my support,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) told CNN Sunday. “I don’t know if I’m going to vote on the [Syria] issue. I’m undecided on that.”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) on Monday said he’s concerned that limited strikes will evolve into a much more protracted conflict.

“When he says it’s going to be a limited strike, well, it may be limited in the first round, but we don’t know how Syria may respond,” Scott said in an interview with WAVY news in Newport News, Va. “And we have to respond to that response, and then all the promises on the limits go out the window.”

Scott also questioned whether the president has the legal authority to intervene in Syria without broader international support.

“The chemical weapons are illegal and the conventions against chemical weapons have specific procedures to use when there is a violation,” Scott said. “One country just can’t decide on its own when to go in and attack.”

Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) echoed those concerns recently, telling a local radio station that he’s “not convinced that military action in the manner sought by the administration is in America’s best interest.”

Carson also linked the Syria vote to Obama’s domestic policy. He argued that many CBC members don’t feel compelled to back the president on Syria because they’re irritated with what they see as a failure of the president to fight hard for programs benefitting the black community.

“You know the Congressional Black Caucus has pushed over the past several years for targeted dollars going to the African-American community going to summer jobs programs,” Carson said, “targeted dollars from the federal government in terms of helping to empower small businesses, women-owned businesses, and minority-owned business; targeted dollars that will help bolster our economy; targeted dollars that will help improve the health of our public school systems.” 

A potential wildcard surfaced Monday, when a long list of powerful actors — including Russia, the United Nations and Hillary Clinton — endorsed a suggestion by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria could avoid the strikes by turning over its stockpile of chemical weapons to international inspectors.

Obama is scheduled to address the country with a primetime speech Tuesday night making the case for military strikes.