Chemical weapons argument isn’t enough to sway some lawmakers on Syria

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WVa) departs after a classified intelligence briefing with members of Congress on the crisis in Syria on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 5, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

For many lawmakers being asked to authorize a U.S. strike on Syria in the coming weeks, the evidence that the Syrian government used deadly chemical weapons against its people appears sound. But that alone isn't enough to convince them to approve a military strike against the nation.

After a series of public and classified briefings on Capitol Hill conducted by top-level aides from the Obama Administration, most lawmakers from both parties are still hesitant to declare how they plan to vote, even though many are convinced that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was likely behind the Aug. 21 chemical attacks that left more than 1,000 civilians dead.

“I’ve taken a look at the classified documents and after having gone through this briefing, the evidence is clear that chemical weapons were used,” Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard told reporters after sitting through a classified hearing Thursday about the situation in Syria. “I’m undecided.”

The real debate, many lawmakers said, is over whether it would be appropriate for the U.S. to get involved through military action even if Assad was responsible.

House and Senate leaders plan to schedule a vote on the authorization resolution as early as next week, but the evidence of support on Capitol Hill is lackluster. Despite an outpouring of approval for a Syria strike from leaders including Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Senate and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and all top Republicans in the House, many rank-and-file members are cautious about revealing their intentions.

Meanwhile, Obama, who is currently traveling in Russia, is waging an aggressive outreach effort to members of Congress urging them to support the resolution. Administration officials have traveled to Capitol Hill several times over the past several days to make their case for an attack. On Thursday, Pelosi sent her third “Dear Colleague” letter to the Democratic conference urging them to get on board.

But after five days of pushing the message since Obama announced last Saturday that he would seek approval from Congress, the pendulum of support is stubbornly not swinging toward the White House.

New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, for instance, left Thursday’s classified hearing and said she was opposed to the effort “now so more than ever.”

“I think there’s a long way to go for the president to make the case,” she said after the briefing. “It does seem there is a high degree of concern and leaning no.”

That concern is bolstered by the appearance that Obama’s call for an attack are increasingly unpopular with constituents.

While many lawmakers have touted the flood of calls they are receiving against the resolution, not one has said publicly that a majority of voters in their district wants them to support it.

“Of my constituents, I’ve never had an issue that has been so overwhelmingly against,” said New Jersey Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo. “If it were today, I would vote no.”

Even the fiercest opponents of the resolution in the House appear so confident that it won’t pass that they’re not even calling on like-minded lawmakers to use procedural tools to block the vote.

“There’s no reason to use any procedure” to block the bill, said Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson. “The House doesn’t want it.”

Of course, much could change between now and the time of the actual vote. Many members of Congress still say they are undecided and many others have still not returned from their districts to hear the in-person briefings. But based on the reluctance of many lawmakers to take a stand, it appears that the fate of the resolution will be largely unknown until they are pressed to vote.