Obama fighting uphill battle over Syria
By Lynn Sweet Washington Bureau Chief September 8, 2013 9:42PM
Updated: October 10, 2013 6:35AM
WASHINGTON — Intensely lobbying Congress to sell a Syria strike — with his presidency at stake — Barack Obama on Sunday night dropped in at Vice President Joe Biden’s residence, where Biden was dining with six GOP senators to discuss Syria over Italian food served family style.
While some lawmakers came in for briefings and hearings last week, the entire Congress returns Monday from a long summer recess to face a concerted drive by Obama and his team on multiple fronts to win House and Senate approval to attack Syria.
It remains an uphill battle. The Senate is scheduled to vote on its resolution to give Obama authority to use military force this week — where on Wednesday the nation marks the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Obama talks to the nation about Syria on Tuesday, delivering a prime time speech to his biggest audience to date on why the U.S. must punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against its civilians. He will sit for six broadcast and cable network interviews on Monday to push his case, informed by his advisers on how to make the strongest arguments armed with data from focus groups and polling.
Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) is undecided on Syria; she has an open mind on what will be the most important vote of her career so far in the House. Kelly is part of three groups all with reservations about Syria being targeted by the Obama team: She is part of a big freshman class, she comes from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and she is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
On Monday, Kelly will attend two Syria briefings: one that is classified for the entire House with Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice plus other top administration officials.
Kelly’s other briefing is for the CBC, and it will be conducted by Rice.
Rice is one of the administration’s most outspoken voices when it comes to genocide prevention and preventing mass atrocities. Rice could make the case, I’m told, that standing up for human rights in the wake of a horrific chemical attack is an extension of demanding civil rights.
Obama has not said what he will do if Congress rejects his bid for an attack. If he orders an attack anyway — under authority he holds — for the first time in recent days there has been suggestions of impeachment, a new complicating factor.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough — who hit five Sunday shows — was asked about the potential of impeachment Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) had raised by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week.”
“What the president is focused on right now, George, is the national security implications of what is undeniably and unrebutted intelligence, which suggests that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people killing 400 children. So that’s what he’s focused on right now,” McDonough said.
Since Obama decided to seek congressional permission on Syria on Aug. 31 — 10 days after the horrendous attack — the administration has discussed the situation with at least 85 senators and more than 165 House members.
Freshman Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who is undecided, was on a call McDonough had with freshmen on Friday.
Democratic House members are being pushed for a yes vote by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has sent five “Dear Colleagues” letters between Tuesday through Saturday.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved its Syria resolution on a 10-7 vote. The House Foreign Affairs Committee hasn’t voted yet. On Wednesday — the day the U.S. mourns for its losses on 9/11 — Hagel, Kerry and Rice brief all the Senate members before that chamber votes.