By Jeremy Herb - 09/10/13 10:00 AM EDT
The White House is depending on five House Republicans in its effort to secure GOP votes for a military strike against Syria.
With GOP leaders unwilling to whip the measure, the Obama administration on Monday began working with some of the few House Republicans who support U.S. military action there to try to turn the tide in the lower chamber, where the measure now looks headed to a defeat.
“It was more about asking us for ideas as to what the president can say or what the White House can do to try to win support — both public support and congressional support — to try to move the needle,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), one of the Republicans at the meeting, told The Hill.
“It’s really the president who has to create a climate and a dynamic where it now becomes debatable ... and that will make our job easier as far as talking to people,” King said.
The outreach to the five House Republicans — King, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (Mich.) and Reps. Mike Pompeo (Kan.), Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) — was part of a major lobbying push this week to try to win a vote in Congress.
The president is attending the weekly Senate lunches for both Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday, and McDonough also met with House Democratic leadership on Monday. He’ll address the full House Democratic caucus Tuesday.
The prospect of a House vote was thrown into some uncertainty later Monday when the Obama administration — and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — began to warm to a proposal to avoid strikes by having Syria surrender its chemical weapons arsenal.
If a vote proceeds, House Republicans will be the toughest case for the White House.
While the outcome of a procedural vote in the Senate remains up in the air, the challenge in the House is even steeper.
More than 150 lawmakers have come out against military action in Syria as of Monday evening, including 120 Republicans, while just 32 House members have indicated support, according to The Hill’s Whip List.
While Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) support the Syria resolution, the leadership is not officially whipping the measure, nor are they aggressively lobbying their members to back it. A GOP leadership aide said there “hasn’t been” coordination between the White House and the leadership on the vote.
The leadership is not keeping a whip count of its members on Syria either, and often treats those mounted by Beltway news outlets with skepticism. But the aide said “there’s no reason to dispute” the findings that a sizable majority of House Republicans oppose the authorization of military force.
King said that if a vote were held now on Syria, it would fail in the House. He said the White House chief of staff was soliciting ideas for how to sway the opinion of the public and lawmakers, and that McDonough did not ask the Republicans to take on a “traditional operation to line up votes.”
“We were very clear that this is not something we are going to be able to sell — it’s got to be on the White House,” Kinzinger told The Hill.
“He seemed to recognize the fact that they have a PR issue and are going to focus on fixing that,” Kinzinger added.
One leading House GOP voice on national security issues was not present at Monday’s meeting: Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).
McKeon has said he is opposed to military action in Syria unless something is done to address the military cuts under sequestration. Several others on his committee have made a similar case.
On Sunday, the committee chairman said he requested a meeting with the White House in order to talk about what can be done about the sequester.
“If we can fix this, it may help some people in the vote,” McKeon said. “I could not guarantee that we could get votes for it, but I know a lot of people have the same concerns that I do.”
One House Republican aide said there was “no path to passage” without the Armed Services Committee chairman on board with the Syria resolution.
“McKeon will work his [committee] members if he gets a commitment on sequester,” said a defense industry source.
The Armed Services and Intelligence committees are viewed as two good places for the Obama administration to pick off Republican votes in favor of military action. The administration will still need some buy-in from GOP members even if it can persuade most House Democrats to back the president on Syria.
Democrats in the House who back military action are also looking to convince their GOP colleagues.
Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) were finalizing their own resolution on Syria Monday that would be more limited in scope than what passed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.
While House leaders have not said what resolution they might bring to the floor, it’s likely that Van Hollen and Connolly would need a Republican on board to get their measure consideration.
Connolly said they have not yet received any GOP support but will be looking for it after they file the resolution.
“We most certainly will reach out to Republicans. We don’t see it as a Democratic resolution,” Connolly told The Hill.
“I have privately talked to two of my Republican colleagues who have told me that if they vote for anything, it would be this resolution,” he said.
Many House members are likely to wait until after Obama addresses the nation on Tuesday before making a final determination on their position.
But for some lawmakers, the president’s address comes too late.
Asked on Monday while heading into a classified briefing if there was anything Obama could say that would persuade him to change his mind and support a Syria resolution, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) replied simply, “No.”
Russell Berman contributed.