White House full-court press on Syria grows

Lawmakers in opposition grow, as does public opinion

The White House ramped up its efforts Monday to convince Congress and the American people that an air strike on Syria is a necessary response to the Middle Eastern country's poison gas attack that killed 1,400.

Scripps Howard News Service

The White House ramped up its efforts Monday to convince Congress and the American people that an air strike on Syria is a necessary response to the Middle Eastern country's poison gas attack that killed 1,400.

White House on Syria

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— In advance of a national address Tuesday by the president, the White House ramped up its efforts Monday to convince Congress and the American people that an air strike on Syria is a necessary response to the Middle Eastern country's poison gas attack that killed 1,400.

But fresh polls and head counts of lawmakers showed opposition remains strong, even as a Russian offer to broker a deal in which Syria would surrender its chemical weapons added another layer of complexity to the biggest crisis of President Barack Obama's tenure.

Here's a question-and-answer look at some of the latest developments:

Q. How is the president preparing the country for making his case to retaliate against Syria?

A. The White House's press office has initiated a full-court press, making high-ranking national security officials available for on the record briefings to local television stations and regional newspaper reporters based in Washington, while the president himself agreed to sit down with six major networks on Monday to make his pitch.

“We believe that now is the time we will have a very robust debate about this,” Josh Earnest, White House principal deputy press secretary, said during an interview at the White House on Monday.

Congress members returned to Washington this week after a five-week break, Earnest said, “and they are coming back to Washington, DC, facing a central question: Should there be consequences for a dictator that uses chemical weapons against innocent civilians, including children?”

Obama's ongoing charm offensive is designed to rally the country behind what appears to be an increasingly unpopular position as an Associated Press poll Monday showed a majority of Americans opposed to a strike against Syrian targets. The Pew Research Center and USA Today also released a pool Monday indicating 63 percent of Americans oppose air strikes on Syria, up 15 percent from a week earlier. Just 28 percent favor the move, according to the poll of 1,506 conducted Sept. 4-8.

Q: What is the White House’s message to lawmakers?

A. Targeted but limited military strikes would deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again and would seriously degrade his capability to carry out chemical attacks.

The White House says it has no desire for the United States to get involved in the Syrian civil war, but failure to strike against Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities would almost certainly mean that Assad would use those weapons again and would create a much greater risk of proliferation of chemical weapons. In addition, failure to act would embolden extremist elements not only in Syria but in Tehran and other places, posing a serious risk to U.S. national security interests.

Q. What kind of opposition has emerged to influence lawmakers?

A. The U.S. Capitol switchboard is overwhelmed with the volume of calls Congress is receiving with what are evidently mostly negative takes on the president’s request for authorization.

Meanwhile, self-described progressive groups, such as MoveOn.org, USAction and the Win Without War coalition have organized more than 160 Monday night candlelight vigils around the country to urge lawmakers to vote no on the authorization resolution.

Q. What kind of a head count, for and against, is the White House looking at on the eve of the president’s nationally televised address?

A. The Hill newspaper whip count indicates that 26 senators are likely to support the president and 20 are likely not to, while 54 remain on the fence, indicating Obama may get Senate approval.

In the House, 144 (including 109 Republicans) have indicated they’re likely to vote against him while only 31 are counted in the “yes or leaning yes” column, including just 21 Democrats. Ninety-two members of the House are either undecided or have made their intentions unclear. The Washington Post’s whip count showed 226 “no-leaning no” votes among House members. If that’s accurate and remains true, the resolution would fail. On Monday, Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said he plans to vote against the measure, leaving Tennessee with a split in the Senate since fellow GOP Sen. Bob Corker favors the resolution.

Q. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings last week and then voted to authorize a strike. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday that the full Senate will vote on it Wednesday. What has the House done in the run-up to an authorization vote?

A. The House Homeland Security Committee scheduled a hasty hearing for Tuesday morning with an underwhelming witness list: a former Connecticut congressman, a retired Army general, the senior fellow from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and a political scientist from nearby George Washington University.

Q. How is the United States likely to respond to Monday’s suggestion by the Russian foreign minister to broker a deal in which Syria surrenders its chemical weapons to international control?

A. Initial White House and State Department reaction was to treat the proposal as a stalling tactic on Syria’s part. State Department spokesman Marie Harf said it would be examined with “serious skepticism” since Syria has in the past refused to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile.

The White House said it is willing to talk to the Russians and stressed that any deal to help deal with Syria’s stockpile of weapons would be welcome. “But we do have to be careful about potential distractions from the current issue on the table, which is making sure the Assad regime doesn’t use chemical weapons again,” said Philip Gordon, the White House National Security Staff member who is coordinator for the Middle East, North African and the Gulf region.

It’s no coincidence the Russians came forward and offered to broker an agreement only after the threat of military action by the United States, Gordon said, noting that Russia and China have blocked previous proposals before the U.N. Security Council to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.

Besides, “if you’re realistic about it, there’s not going to be a quick fix on this issue,” Gordon said. “It will take quite a long time.”

At the White House on an unrelated matter, former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday said the proposal was an “important step” but said it should not be used as “another excuse for delay.”

Q. How is Syria responding to the talk of a bombing raid?

A. Syrian President Bashar al Assad agreed to talk to CBS’s Charlie Rose in an interview broadcast Monday morning. Among Assad’s ominous observations: “If you strike somewhere, you have to expect the repercussions somewhere else in different forms.”

(Michael Collins and Bartholomew Sullivan are Washington correspondents for Scripps Howard News Service. Reach Collins at collinsm@shns.com and on Twitter @mcollinsSHNS. Reach Sullivan at sullivanb@shns.com and on Twitter: @sullivanshns. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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