September 1st, 2013
06:30 PM ET
8 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.

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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. SelectiveOutrage

    Where were these staunch defenders of humanity then? Doesn't this make Dem leadership war criminals?

    Beginning in the morning on March 16, 1988 and continuing all night, the Iraqis rained down volley after volley of bombs filled with a deadly mixture of mustard gas and nerve agents on Halabja. Immediate effects of the chemicals included blindness, vomiting, blisters, convulsions, and asphyxiation. Approximately 5,000 women, men, and children died within days of the attacks. Long-term effects included permanent blindness, cancer, and birth defects. An estimated 10,000 lived, but live daily with the disfigurement and sicknesses from the chemical weapons.

    September 2, 2013 08:42 am at 8:42 am |
  2. Helen Troy

    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."

    Time to retire this ole boy!!!

    September 2, 2013 08:45 am at 8:45 am |
  3. Larry L


    "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."

    Does this scare anyone else?
    Do you think publicly giving a potential enemy details regarding your military intentions might be a bad idea? Could it be the Congress is so broken getting them to individualy man-up to anything specific is unrealistic?

    I believe the Congress should either declare war on Syria or declare America out of the job as the world's police force. It's time for those political weasels to take responsibility for something... anything!

    September 2, 2013 09:36 am at 9:36 am |
  4. Dar

    The look on Obama's face in this picture is one of pure "uncertainty"
    This was his 3am phone call and he failed, just like Hillary said he would.
    He has gone around the GOP and Congress too many times for his own petty schemes, why not now? I mean, why wouldn't he again tell them all to kiss his butt? BEACUSE he is a Candy ass and has no idea how to handle anything like this.
    The strike should have already been made before the whole world knew about it and of course allowed Syria to prepare for it. Kind of like showing your poker hand isn't it?
    Is Obama simply being transparent? NO WAY, he is gas lighting the American people like he has his whole unfortunate presidency.
    It is too late for us to help now and Obama should leave it up to another country that has a real leader who can take the bull by the horns.
    Go back to bed Obama, curl up in you fetal position and cry your self to sleep little boy.

    September 2, 2013 09:42 am at 9:42 am |
  5. Alan Morrison

    There are a few reasons this story that is about to come to life disturbs me to no end. President Obama announces to the World that the United States of America will act alone in initiating military action against the Syrian regime. So in announcing the U.S.A. is going to do something about this atrocity, and don`t get me is an atrocity, he sets in motion a commitment that he now asks the Congress to approve AFTER having said it. By doing that, announcing his intentions and then seeking Congressional approval.....President Obama with forethought mind you, handcuffs and railroads the Congress into a yes vote. That disturbs me.....mightily. That again a President wants to undertake military action BEFORE the U.N. inspectors have done their job in accessing the crime scene, disturbs me. That every other allied nation opted out of military action with the United States disturbs me. That we are to believe once again in the undeniable surety of the intel being presented by the Obama administration reflecting the truth in Syria makes me hesitate. That Russia is suggesting its a planted attack, a false flag in other words .....disturbs me to no end. There is intrigue involved here and since there is...let Congress be extremely careful in their final and prudent decision.

    September 2, 2013 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  6. Gant

    The only recourse now is to do the unexpected.

    We should ally with Assad and bomb the rebels with conventional weapons, since that is 'OK'. We get to decimate Al-Qaeda allies, stop the use of chemical weapons and make Iran and the Russians realize Americans are insane.


    September 2, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  7. Bradley Barnett

    Congress will NOT approve President Obama's approval to take action. One has to wonder why,he's asking for it? He doesn't need to and Congress doesn't want to have their institution attached to such silly decision making. Does President Obama really think the Congress is the dumb,where they would become involved in something that none of their constituents wants them to do!?

    By asking,he has given ALL the power to Congress and has guaranteed his 'lame duck' status. I can't believe he 'lowered' himself to this situation. Goodbye,health-care,immigration and ALL that should have happened during your second term!

    September 2, 2013 10:02 am at 10:02 am |
  8. rs

    In some sense, what Syria is doing, is demonstrating that the United States while undoubtably the most powerful nation on Earth (spending more than the next 10 greatest military spending nations), that there are in fact real limits to the effects of military action.
    The reality may well be (just as we've seen in Iraq), that the "target" may be taken out- in Iraq's case Saddam Hussein, but conditions hardly improved. In Iraq, 120,000 Iraqi civilians died, 2 million were turned into refugees, and much of the nation still doesn't have power 24 hours a day. Can anyone sane think that sort of activity will win over the hearts and minds of the rebels and terrorists?
    Is this really a model for dealing with issues in the Middle East?
    The GOP meanwhile has discovered they can't endlessly criticize the President without providing input and alternatives. They HAVE to weigh in on whether or not this is an appropriate course of action- or shut up.

    September 2, 2013 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  9. oh no!

    after being laughed at by congress obama seeks advice from oprah!

    September 2, 2013 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  10. Te Feng

    Remember when saddams WMD went missing and speculation was that he shipped his WMD to Syria? And the dems kept saying there were no WMD. Oops, I think we found Saddam's WMD cache

    September 2, 2013 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  11. simiplyput

    Just say NO.

    September 2, 2013 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  12. Thomas

    @Te Feng
    Remember when saddams WMD went missing and speculation was that he shipped his WMD to Syria? And the dems kept saying there were no WMD. Oops, I think we found Saddam's WMD cache.

    Yes , they used an underground tunnel from Bagdad to Damascus .They transported them in the middle of the night wearing Bugs Bunny costumes !

    It's incredible how important it is for some to justify bad intelligence.

    September 2, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  13. G

    the american tax payers have gained nothing after trillions spent in the middle –only the chosen few have gained–shut the door

    September 2, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  14. G

    if congress say no walk–impeach him for what saving tax payers a billion plus dollars

    September 2, 2013 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  15. They ought to change from the elephant to the hippo...

    Oh Te...

    Of course Saddam HAD WMD. It was obvious given tat he used them in 1988 (at least), while the Republican hero Reagan was in office. Don't you remember all the outrage?!?! Oh, wait...

    The question was whether he still HAD them at the time (2003), in the face of an imminent threat of war under GWB, and if such a justification was truthful at the time or fabricated. Given that the inspectors said he didn't, and GWB STILL went in will always leave a stain on his administration and the US in the rest of the world's eyes.

    September 2, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  16. Winston

    It seems that Obama does not want to be called GWB jr. So, he has to take a different route; gets Congress approval before he acts. Only about 100 congreesmen came to his sells meeting is not a good indication.

    September 2, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  17. rs

    "Of course Saddam HAD WMD. It was obvious given tat he used them in 1988 (at least), ..."
    We in fact had the paper trail, the sales were engineered by Rumsfeld, and approved by Reagan. That they weren't found implies they were used- on the thousands of Iraqis who died then, or against Iranians in their ongoing conflict. The U.N. inspectors affirmed Iraq had no WMD.

    September 2, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  18. Soapy

    I want no part of another war but let's be realistic. If our congress votes to shoot. I think we should take out Iran at the same time. Iran is the biggest threat to world right now and they're just looking for an excuse to nuke Israel. WWlll at the OK Corral.

    September 2, 2013 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  19. Dick Cheney

    Can't wait !!! I'll get the Laundry contract and Security contract for this one and make another 60 billion.....I love a good war!!!!

    September 2, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  20. Claude

    Do you all really believe saddam left the WMD where the inspectors could find it? How naive can people be...

    He had weeks before the attack in 2003 to prepare and years befor that to as we'll. the Middle East does not play by the UN rules.

    September 2, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  21. Claude

    Just carpet bomb the entire Middle East, except Israel. It would be a lot easier and probably end up with the same end result.

    September 2, 2013 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  22. Cephus

    Whao, great to see the three "cut and run" musketeers pretending in deep thoughts in a circus meeting.

    September 3, 2013 12:18 am at 12:18 am |
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