By Mike Lillis - 09/06/13 09:45 AM EDT
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) will be no rubber stamp for President Obama's proposal to strike Syria.
Black Democrats were among the most consistently vocal opponents of the Iraq War a decade ago, and they're now among the most reluctant to endorse a U.S. attack on Bashar Assad's forces in response to the Syrian strongman's alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said Thursday that she is "not prepared to suggest that there is no basis" for strikes, but she wants assurances that the attacks won't put U.S. troops in harm's way.
"I am going to continue to explore with the appropriate officials as to whether or not we are sure that there will be no boots on the ground of U.S. troops," she said following a confidential briefing with administration officials in the Capitol. "And that I can't answer for you right now."
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) also expressed sharp doubts Thursday.
"The more information I learn, the more I am convinced that we have got to try to figure out what happens after this," he told MSNBC. "Because I do believe, from everything that I've read, that President Assad will retaliate."
The issue presents a dilemma for CBC leaders, who want to support Obama, the nation's first black president who retains all-star status within the group, but whose constituents are weary of overseas military operations after 10 long years in Iraq.
“The fact remains that a significant number of our constituents are in opposition to the use of force, and that is something that we have to weigh heavily in making our decision," Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who's also undecided, said Thursday. "In the overwhelming majority of cases, individuals have made clear that they are very concerned about the possibility of going to war."
Highlighting the CBC's difficult position, Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) this week asked CBC members "to limit public comment on the issue," spokeswoman Ayofemi Kirby said Thursday.
"The Chair believes Congress and the American public need more information and she awaits more briefings between now and early next week before commenting further," Kirby said in an email.
Fudge is among the many CBC members who have yet to take a position on Obama's plan.
Hoping to allay some of the Democrats' concerns, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been working all week to convince her troops that targeted strikes against Syria, as Obama has proposed, are necessary both to prevent another chemical attack and to send a global message that such attacks will have grave consequences.
"It is in our national interest to respond to the Syrian government’s unspeakable use of chemical weapons," she wrote to her caucus on Tuesday.
Two days later, Pelosi penned another letter highlighting the limitations attached to the Senate's authorization resolution, which passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a split vote Wednesday.
“Specifically, the resolution prevents boots on the ground, ties the authorization more closely to the use of chemical and other weapons of mass destruction, and has a limited timetable,” Pelosi wrote.
Still, the campaign has done little to inspire any wave of commitments from liberal Democrats wary of entering yet another Middle Eastern conflict, particularly among CBC members.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) has continued to make the rounds on the cable news shows condemning military strikes as the first step toward a long and unpredictable war. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), another "no" vote, is drafting an alternative proposal for a nonmilitary response to Syria's long-running civil war. And even Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, has so far withheld his endorsement of U.S. military intervention.
"Issues of war & peace require thoughtful consideration," Clyburn tweeted Tuesday. "I reserve judgment on Syria until a resolution and more details are forthcoming."
Clyburn has not commented publicly on the issue since then.
Obama's Syria plan is not without CBC support, however. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), for instance, has indicated she's ready to back the president. And Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is leaning toward some form of intervention as a humanitarian response to the tragedy playing out in Syria.
"There is no 'military solution' to the crisis in Syria," Ellison said this week, "but we must consider whether limited military action will reduce Assad’s capacity to kill more innocents."
Those members of the CBC with lingering questions about Obama's plan in Syria will soon have the chance to seek answers, as Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, is scheduled to meet with the group behind closed doors on Monday.
Perhaps the best news for Obama is that many appear willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt.
"This is the president of the United States," Jeffries said. "I trust him; I support him; I will give him every opportunity to make the strongest possible case."
— Erik Wasson contributed to this story.