September 1st, 2013
06:30 PM ET
5 years ago

Questions, skepticism make Congressional vote on Syria uncertain

Washington (CNN) - The odds of the Obama administration winning congressional support for military action against Syria were unclear Sunday as lawmakers got a classified briefing on the administration's case against the Syrian government.

Roughly 100 members of the House and Senate came back from recess for the briefing with top administration officials, according to those who attended the meeting. Many of those lawmakers - Republicans and Democrats alike - left the session skeptical and with major concerns about the language of the president's proposal.

President Barack Obama announced Saturday that he wants the United States to take limited action against Syria's government, which Washington says has used chemical weapons on its own civilians. But Obama said he will first seek authorization from Congress when the House and Senate officially return on September 9.

Changing a 'partial blank check'

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who helped moderate the discussion Sunday, told reporters the biggest concern among members was "a very broad request for authority with a supposedly very narrow intent."

"I think that has to be narrowed down next week," he told reporters.

Obama administration officials said they were "open" on the language issue, Blunt said, and he believes they will have to be if they want the resolution passed. The senator indicated he is undecided and wants to hear more, but he's also skeptical that a limited mission is worth the risk of launching a strike.

Democratic Rep. John Carney of Delaware said administration officials explained why the draft resolution's wording was broad but said it was classified so he couldn't elaborate.

"There's a lot to think about," he said, adding that the decision is weighing heavily on many of his colleagues.

Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said he expects changes will be made to the proposal, which he called a "partial blank check" because it was "too broadly drafted."

"This is not a question of whether you trust the president. I do trust the president. This is a question now of what kind of authorization that Congress will give to the executive branch," he said.

He said he would like to see an amendment that would prohibit American troops from being on the ground in Syria and a separate change that would give American action in the country a firm expiration date. The U.S. should only be able to intervene after the initial strike if President Bashar al-Assad's regime continues to use chemical weapons, he said.

Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, a top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged caution in adjusting the language.

"I think we can narrow it somewhat, but we have to be careful. You don't want to tie the president's hands. You want him to do what he needs to do," he said.

No plans for counting votes for now

But the main argument from the administration, according to a source familiar with Sunday's meeting, was "What will the world think of us if we vote this down?"

Historically, both parties have tended to treat votes like these as a matter of conscience, and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has no plans to twist members' arms on a vote, according to a senior House GOP member who didn't want to speak on the record about internal talks.

Democratic supporters are hoping Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi decides to whip Democratic members to push for a yes vote. On a conference call with congressional leaders and Obama officials last week, Pelosi - who became speaker in 2006 in large part because of opposition to the Bush administration over the war in Iraq - argued in favor of acting in a limited capacity in Syria, according to sources on the call.

One GOP aide acknowledged that Republicans don't plan to count votes but argued "Pelosi needs to post a big number" for the resolution to pass the House.

Sources from both parties say votes in both chambers - especially in the House - could go either way.

If a vote were taken today, it likely would not pass, which is why the president is not calling Congress back early from its recess. The White House needs time to present its case and lobby lawmakers, and top administration officials are set to meet with members of Congress this week in addition to Sunday's briefing.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra told reporters Sunday on Capitol Hill that he doesn't think "matters of military action lend themselves to whipping."

"These are singular votes," the California representative said.

Becerra added he's still reviewing evidence and has not decided how he would vote but said if the mission went beyond targeted strikes, he would oppose it.

Sen. John McCain, who's meeting with Obama Monday, said he wants to know whether there's a plan to take out Assad's regime before he commits to a vote. If the vote were held today, however, he said he believes it could pass.

"I do believe that it can," the Arizona Republican told reporters on Capitol Hill before going into the classified meeting. "I think it depends to some degree whether the president of the United States not only makes the case to Congress, but I would recommend that he speak from the Oval Office and tell the American people why this mission is necessary."

Shadows of the past loom in present

Rep. Janice Hahn of California, who took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles Saturday night to arrive in time for the Sunday briefing, said "there was a lot of concern in the room" about the objectives of launching a strike.

Hahn, a Democrat, said she's "not there yet" on feeling confident about voting for military intervention, adding the room of about 100 lawmakers seemed "evenly divided."

"Members of Congress that came back here today are taking this very seriously, are very concerned and are asking a lot of hard questions, probably some questions that were not asked 10 years ago," she said.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Connecticut, also referenced the Iraq War as a reason why many lawmakers want to be careful about their decision.

"There was a lot of memories of another time when a president came and said, or at least the president's people came and said, this was slam dunk intelligence, and of course, that was not an episode that most members would ever want to repeat," he said, adding that he believes most members "are thinking a lot more about the merits of the proposal than the political consequences for the president."

If the vote were held today, Himes said he would vote "no." The congressman wants to know if the president will be able to gather more international support and would like to see more details about U.S. involvement after the strike.

The congressman also said he watched the British Parliament vote against a Syria strike "with some trepidation."

"Obviously those of us who serve in the Congress watched what the House of Commons did with some trepidation. The UK has always been at our side when we've undertaken these things, and this time, they're not, so there's a lot of questions about that," he said.

Longtime Democratic Rep. Sander Levin said he was a "yes" and expressed confidence that a majority of Congress would agree with him and will "step up to the plate."

"I've been here over 30 years, I think now and then we can go beyond politics, and this is one time we need to do this," the Michigan Democrat said.

Asked if he's aware of how a U.S. military involvement might end in Syria, Levin said, "I don't think anybody's quite sure, but I think we know where we need to start."

- CNN's Alison Harding contributed to this report.

Filed under: Congress • Syria
soundoff (222 Responses)
  1. Dixie

    Given the diplomatic climate in the world we do not have a choice. The inaction and weakness shown is hurting our country. Get to the hill and vote already and don't mess up. We have a huge mess to clean up. Crediblity is really low now and must be corrected at all costs.

    September 1, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  2. omeany

    I thought the GOP said we can't afford Obama Care? If we can't afford to help our own citizens get affordable health care do we always seem to have the money for military action? How about we keep our money and invest it in our own country's needs?

    September 1, 2013 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  3. spanglisg

    No to syria is the application of the Agenda 21 diminution of population by self determination of a country, by the way the agenda 21 is being apply by the Adm. Obama..The truth will set you free

    September 1, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  4. Thomas

    Thats a goot signe !

    When will they be finished playing golf to decide ?

    September 1, 2013 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  5. Name jk. Sfl. GOP conservatives,the garbage of America.

    The GOP teatrolls in congress will try to embarrass president Obama on this issue, Obama is trying to get more support fro a disfunctional GOP house of reps and now we will see how bad the GOP is before the 2014 midterms when the American voters are going to clean house on the GOP garbage of America party!!!! Obama is going to do it anyway and doesn't need their approval anyway. I think he's trying to show how screwed up the GOP really is!!!!!

    September 1, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  6. hold on tight, it is about to get bumpy

    So Obama shoots off his mouth about crossing red lines during an election,and now he turns to Congress for cover from his mistake? He already stated he doesn't need Congress to act. Why this charade? He wants to now say Congress gave him approval when this whole thing blows up in his face. Obama proves himself to nothing by an empty suit non-leader more and more this each passing day. He has turned himself, the Presidency and this country into a laughing stock around the world. To call him a paper tiger is an insult to paper tigers.

    September 1, 2013 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  7. rla

    Dream on this is a slam dunk NO-- Even congress is not ignorant enough to give this president a go to start a war for absolutely no reason that can be traced to the constitution

    September 1, 2013 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  8. rla

    Obama is going to get a NO - Absolutely no connect ion to the constitution and he makes bush look good

    September 1, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  9. morriekurt

    Gop just angry because the president asked for authorization and now they have to vote on the issue. If he had not sought authorizat

    September 1, 2013 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  10. Anonymous

    "....snd now he turns to Congress for cover..........."
    Except Congress has been screaming for two weeks that they want to be "consulted", almost demanding it.
    So, now they have a voice, but what to do, what to do?

    Paul says it is a mistake
    King says the President doesn't need Congressional approval and should just move on
    McCain/Graham say the plan doesn't go far enough
    Cruz says he is glad to be in on the decision (of course he is), but he finds the plan "troubling"
    The GOP will be in a tizzy trying to debate and vote.
    They asked for it, now they have it. Good luck!

    September 1, 2013 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
  11. Name


    You are so right. Now their vote will be on record. They will have their skin in the game. Now the GOP cannot blame Obama.....They have to vote.

    September 1, 2013 04:30 pm at 4:30 pm |
  12. laraine

    I don't get how it's a Republican issue. I'm a dem, my husband's an independent and we're both totally against attacking Syria. It's a civil war–a religious civil war at that–and neither side is wearing white hats. There are lots of terrorists who hate America fighting for the rebels. Hey, how about we look at history and check out how successful we've been when we barged into a country and overthrew the ruler. Not our fight, not our business, not our responsibility. We need to take care of the veterans we have and stop spending money on foreign wars.

    September 1, 2013 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  13. boungiorno

    cherish this day it may be the only one left

    September 1, 2013 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  14. rs

    You can bet that if the President makes a case for involvement in Syria, the TEA Party lead GOP in the House will vote it down- whether they think action in Syria is needed or not- they will oppose the President at all points.
    The Senate will be more nuanced, and much will depend on the way McConnell, Graham and McCain go.
    Meanwhile, action in Syria ought to be predicated upon who wants action. The Arab League apparently wants action, but I think without U.N. approval- and a majority of allies to share the burden, the U.S. ought to stay out.
    Perhaps if the Republicans actually halt this, they will do something positive for the future of the U.S. and the Middle East- and perhaps after the disaster of Iraq they have learned (I doubt that...). The upshot may be however that the Iranians will see this as a green light. Something we'll all have to ponder for the future.

    September 1, 2013 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  15. king

    i always said that Obama was one of the shrewdest president weve ever had. as with lybia when the repubs bated Obama to act, then when he did they quickly switched and the blasted Obama for intervening in another war without asking congress. now the repubs have to put their bating on paper, so when they switches to blast the president which will happen, they will still have to deal with their voting on the record where this war is concerned. i think this was a brilliant move by our president.

    September 1, 2013 06:15 pm at 6:15 pm |
  16. boungiorno

    people have lost touch with reality

    September 1, 2013 06:48 pm at 6:48 pm |
  17. Dixie

    The debate about going to war is to late. The troups are inplace and the world is watching. Inorder to have support from other nations there must be a belief that you will stand up for your beliefs and keep your word. The other nations of the world are questioning were we are. Can they trust the US? Will we have their back? Time to do what needs to be done and stop chemical weapons by anyone.

    September 1, 2013 07:05 pm at 7:05 pm |
  18. johnny _m_mustard

    It is so good to know that congress will vote on the citizens !

    September 1, 2013 07:23 pm at 7:23 pm |
  19. Bhawk1

    Will the tea-party back up Israel? Just see Israel being pushed into corner with but one way out. The big A on syria and Iran

    September 1, 2013 07:25 pm at 7:25 pm |
  20. Drew

    This is insane.

    Leave Syria alone, both sides hate us now, both sides will hate us after. Let the Arab league deal with it.

    Where is the proof it was Syria who used them? The UN will only affirm CW were used, not who used them.

    Lets focus on the US and our issues at home. By the way, we reach the debt ceiling again in October..

    September 1, 2013 07:25 pm at 7:25 pm |
  21. Basir Al Assad

    Thank you for the warning brother Obama, by the time you act our weapons will be back in Iran and your party will denounce the action as a WMD witch hunt.

    PS if you are going to pick a fight don't tell the bully you intend on throwing a left cross first he just might step out if the way...... Amature

    September 1, 2013 07:26 pm at 7:26 pm |
  22. Surthurfurd

    For some people, the use of chemical warfare against civilians is acceptable as long as it does not include themselves.

    September 1, 2013 07:27 pm at 7:27 pm |
  23. crimson

    I oppose American military involvement in Syria. Dropping a bomb on a country is an act of war.

    September 1, 2013 07:27 pm at 7:27 pm |
  24. P. O. Carl

    I remember CNN and almost the same headline years ago, "Making the case against Iraq". We do not need to get involved in this. We do not know who used the chemical weapons. And, I do not trust our "intelligence" agencies.

    September 1, 2013 07:28 pm at 7:28 pm |
  25. Norm

    Gee I guess after the almost two decades of the Bush wars...we're just sick and tired of it.
    Don't do it President Obama.
    I know there's a humanitarian aspect, but maybe his time it's already too late to save those poor innocents that were gasses and we just can't afford to keep policing the whole world.
    Let's take care of our own for a change. There is already a sequester on and we still give billions to other countries that already hate us.
    STOP sending my taxes over seas. We need them right here...right now.
    Let's let logic rule the day not emotions.
    And ignore the GOP just as you've been doing right along.
    They're irrelevant.

    September 1, 2013 07:30 pm at 7:30 pm |
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