Lawmakers predict rocky future for Syria proposal
(CNN) — Several lawmakers argued Sunday that President Barack Obama has a steep uphill battle ahead in persuading Congress to support U.S. military action in Syria.
Citing concerns about funding, fears of escalated U.S. involvement and skepticism of the president’s plan, Republicans and Democrats alike said they’re not convinced the U.S. should launch military strikes.
Rep. Jim McGovern, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, said the support in Congress “isn’t there” for Obama’s proposal, and he urged the president to withdraw his authorization request.
“People view war as a last resort. I don’t think people think that we’re at that point,” McGovern said on CNN’s State of the Union. “I would step back a little bit. We have other issues we have to deal with in Congress.”
The congressman argued he’s “a big supporter of President Obama’s” and backs him “on almost everything” but said “sometimes friends can disagree.”
“This is not a question about party loyalty,” he told Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent. “This is a question for all of us about what is right. This is a vote of conscience.”
Republican Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said on the same program that he worries about funding an overseas mission. The California Republican has been pointing to the recent budgets cuts for the military, including the forced spending cuts – known in Washington as sequestration – that took effect earlier this year.
“We’re asking them to do more with less,” he said. “I think there’s a moral responsibility that we have to our troops.”
McKeon said he wants to sit down with the president to discuss military spending and argued, “if we can fix this, it may help some people in their vote.”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, agreed, saying, “it’s is immoral to continue to ask our men and women in the military to go out without the equipment, the training, the readiness and funds to do this.”
She also takes issue with the proposal because she says it lacks clearly defined objectives.
“You need to know what that exit strategy is going to be. And I don’t see that,” she said on State of the Union.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough sought to dispel concerns that military strikes in Syria would balloon into a long-term effort or a mission that requires boots on the ground.
“This is not Iraq or Afghanistan; this is not Libya,” he said on CNN. “This is not an extended air campaign. This is something that’s targeted and limited and effective so as to underscore that (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) should not think he can get away with this again.”
Secretary of State John Kerry also repeatedly reiterated last week in two congressional hearings that boots would not be put on the ground in Syria.
Obama himself said Friday in a news conference he understands the skepticism but emphasized that the military response would be “limited” and “proportional” in both time and scope.
“What we’re describing here would be limited and proportional and designed to address this problem of chemical weapons use and upholding a norm that helps keep all of us safe,” he said.
But Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-California, said U.S. involvement in the war-torn country would be a slippery slope.
“The minute that one of those cruise missiles lands in there, we are in the Syrian war,” she said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “So for the president to say this is just, you know, a very quick thing and we’re out of there — that’s how long wars start.”
Rep. Mike McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, also had a hard time believing U.S. involvement would be capped with the strikes.
“Once we’re in, we’re in. And once we hit, this is an act of war. Little wars start big wars, and we have to remember that,” the Texas Republican said on “Meet the Press.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a rewritten authorization measure last week that would prohibit sending U.S. military personnel into Syria and limit the scope of the attack. Lawmakers officially return to Capitol Hill on Monday from their monthlong summer break, and the Senate could vote on the resolution as early as Thursday or Friday — or it could drag into the weekend or next week.
It’s unclear when or whether the House will vote on the resolution, as Republican leaders have said they will act after the Senate. As of Sunday morning, 123 members of the House have said they plan to vote “no” on the authorization, while 24 plan to vote “yes,” and a majority are still “undecided,” according to CNN’s latest count.
Two House Democrats who will vote yes said they don’t believe the resolution will pass the House, even in a watered-down form that sets strict time limits and restricts military action. Both insisted on anonymity, arguing they do not want to add to the president’s task by perhaps encouraging other representatives to vote no on the assumption it’s over.
One of the representatives said the House “is just a disaster” for the president. The lawmaker also criticized the administration’s messaging. “It’s not a mixed message. It’s a mixed message and incoherent arguments.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wants to see Congress approve the president’s proposal, but he also argued the administration has fumbled the ball when it comes to wooing Capitol Hill.
“I think it’s very clear he’s lost support in the last week,” the Michigan Republican said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Rogers’ comments on Sunday marked a stark contrast to the optimism he expressed a week ago, when he said on CNN he believed Congress would “rise to the occasion” and pass the president’s proposal.
But Rogers now says the Obama administration has done an “awful job” in making its case, saying administration officials are not focusing enough on how Syria’s ties with Iran could be potentially damaging to the United States.
He also criticized the president for traveling to the G20 summit in Russia last week without calling Congress back from recess to have a national security debate over whether to take military action in Syria.
“The way it happened was mystifying,” Rogers said, referring to the president’s proposal August 31 for congressional authorization. “He announced it and then left.”
Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday he would not have supported the president’s original authorization language, but after the committee redrafted the authorization to make it more narrow, he’s now in favor of taking action.
“I do think that we know what the consequences of inaction will be, that we know that Bashar al-Assad, one of the worst dictators who has used some of the worst weapons in American — in world history will continue to use cluster bombs and scud missiles and chemical weapons to massacre thousands of his own civilians,” Coons said on State of the Union.
The Senate Intelligence Committee posted on its website Saturday night troubling videos of people dying in the aftermath of the August 21 chemical attack in a Damascus suburb. The same videos were shown in a classified setting last week to members of the Senate and were slated to be played Monday at a briefing for House members.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan, said the videos, which were first shown to the public by CNN earlier Saturday, are “horrific” but don’t “determine whether we should go to war.”
“I’ve talked to my constituents, and they are overwhelmingly opposed to going to war,” he told CNN. “I’ve been to the classified briefings, I know what the evidence is, and I think the case is not that strong right now.”
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” McDonough argued “it’s too early to come to any conclusion” about how Congress will vote.
The White House chief of staff, who took part in a series of TV interviews Sunday, said on CNN he has spoken with dozens of members of Congress and “not a single one rebuts or refutes the intelligence and the evidence.”
The question they face, he said, is whether Syria’s regime should “be held to account for carrying out this activity.”
“If members of Congress want to answer that question, to say that there should be consequences for this action, then they’re going to have to vote yes for the authorization,” he said.
Many of the undecided lawmakers may wait until Obama makes his case the American people Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET in a speech from the White House.
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Michigan, said Friday the president needs “to talk to the public, and lay out the facts as fully as he can.” Levin has said he plans to vote “yes” on the authorization.
“This is gonna be a fireside chat, somewhat like it was in the ’30s. I wasn’t old enough to know, but one has to remember how difficult it was for President Roosevelt in World War II,” Levin said Friday after a joint closed briefing for members on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said Sunday he was still weighing his options for stalling a vote in the full Senate on the use of force resolution. The Kentucky Republican said a filibuster could only delay a vote but wouldn’t “put off a vote forever.”
Instead, he said, he’d demand that any vote taken by Congress be binding, meaning that the president would be barred from striking Syria without congressional approval.
“The president cannot, if we vote him down, decide to go to war anyway. That’s the way I interpret the Constitution,” Paul said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, told reporters he would be surprised if Obama went against Congress if they said “no.”
“There are two sides to this. When he asked for Congress’ consent, he was also asking for the American people’s consent,” he said. “But the flip side of that is if you don’t get that consent, I think that it would be appropriate not to move forward.”