Obama's plan on Syria hinges on 'undecideds' in Congress

WASHINGTON Thu Sep 5, 2013 4:09pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Syria during a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt at the Prime Minister's office in Stockholm, Sweden September 4, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Syria during a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt at the Prime Minister's office in Stockholm, Sweden September 4, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The fate of a U.S. congressional resolution to authorize a military strike against Syria is in the hands of scores of lawmakers from both parties who have not made up their minds and say they are not getting the information they need to do so.

As a result, after two long hearings featuring top national security officials, half a dozen closed door briefings for members of Congress and personal phone calls from President Barack Obama, it is anyone's guess whether Congress will approve Obama's proposal to punish Syria for apparently using chemical weapons against its own people.

"I have more questions than I have answers, and I hope to get them over the course of today and tomorrow," undecided Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, a senior Democrat, told reporters Thursday.

She spoke as she entered the latest closed-door session Thursday with Obama's national security team, only to emerge two hours later saying she still had "more questions."

"What we heard today made a compelling forensic case that one, nerve gas was used, and number two, that it was used" by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mikulski, an Obama loyalist told reporters encamped in the hallway.

"The next step then has to be then, what is the way to both deter and degrade his ability to ever do it again ... Does a military strike do that?"

Based on surveys by a variety of news organizations of public comments made by lawmakers, roughly 50 members of the 100-member Senate have not made up their minds. According to a Washington Post count, 34 of the 50 are Democrats.

The Post count listed 103 members of the House of Representatives as undecided, of whom 62 are Democrats. There are 433 members currently sitting in the House.

While State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration was confident Congress was "not going to stand by and allow this brutal attack to go unanswered," lawmakers said they needed to know more about how punishing Assad for the August 21 sarin gas attack would fit in the larger picture of the country's two-year civil war.

"I remain skeptical of the United States going alone, and about what comes after," said Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee the resolution to authorize the use of force on Wednesday by a 10-7 vote.

The full Senate is likely to begin voting on Wednesday, a Senate aide said. It will start with a vote on an anticipated legislative roadblock by Republicans, and then move on to a vote on the resolution to authorize the use of force. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was "guardedly optimistic" the resolution would pass by the end of next week, the aide said.

The timing of a vote in the Republican controlled House of Representatives remained uncertain. The House will be heavily influenced by whatever the Senate does.

With so many members, especially Democrats, non-committal, aides on Capitol Hill said they had no reliable vote count of their own.

Senate Democrats began a "whip count" of members on Thursday, an aide said, but expected it to be hard to pin down until next week. And in the House, a Republican aide said it was "still too early to predict anything with certainty."

Memories of the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still fresh in the minds of members of Congress, leaving many of both parties worried that a military strike will lead to a longer and larger engagement in Syria.

Recognizing this, the White House is focused on drawing distinctions between limited plans for Syria, tailored to the apparent use of chemical weapons by Syria and those decade-long wars that followed the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.

"This is not open ended, this is not boots on the ground," deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said Thursday on MSNBC before heading off to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers.

"This is not Iraq. It's not Afghanistan. It's not even Libya," he said, referring to the intervention by the U.S. and allies in Libya in March 2011, which ultimately led to the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

TOUGH ROAD AHEAD

After multiple briefings, Republican Senator Susan Collins, a moderate from Maine, told reporters Thursday that the White House had not yet clearly stated its broader strategy.

"I continue to have many, many questions about the ramifications of a limited military strike ... I am also very wary of the United States becoming entangled more and more deeply in what is a civil war," said Collins.

Many House members, including Democrats, shared her dissatisfaction with what she was hearing from the administration.

If Obama is going to win in the House, he must convince fellow Democrats like Representative Zoe Lofgren of California and Bill Pascrell of New Jersey.

The two veteran liberals have been reliable Obama allies on crush of issues the past five years, but now voice plenty of questions and concerns about his bid to bomb Syria.

Lofgren joined a conference call for House Democrats on Monday, during which members of the Obama administration briefed them. She complained that the briefing did not provide nearly as much information as she had sought and disliked at least a portion of Secretary of State John Kerry's presentation.

Kerry invoked memories of Nazi Germany when he told House Democrats that the United States faces "a Munich Moment" in deciding whether to wage military strikes against Syria.

"I thought it was a very unfortunate comment. We need facts, not overheated emotional rhetoric," Lofgren said.

Pascrell said evidence of chemical weapons seems strong, but he was still reading supporting documents. "I'm about half way through," he said.

Pascrell says "made a hell of a mistake" backing President George W. Bush's attack on Iraq, convinced by evidence later proved false that it had "weapons of mass destruction."

Most of Pascrell's constituents had opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and after claims of "weapons of mass destruction" proved false he publicly apologized to them for his vote.

Polls now show most Americans nationwide lined up against a U.S. military strike in Syria.

"If I end up voting no, I want people to know that I went into this with an open mind," Pascrell said.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey. Editing by Fred Barbash and Jackie Frank)

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