President Barack Obama looked to shore up his base on Syria on Monday — personally wooing the Congressional Black Caucus for an hour — as his administration’s all-hands-on-deck lobbying effort efforts continued to struggle to get support from rank-and-file Republicans.
Obama will need most of the CBC on board to get to a majority despite the misgivings of many of their members over a new war in the Middle East.
“He was very frank with us,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and one who describes himself as still undecided. “I didn’t expect one meeting to win over votes. I think everyone’s looking forward to his speech [Tuesday] night, a major speech.”
As for whether Obama — who sat with CBC members for about an hour, according to Cummings — expressed frustration that the fate of the authorization resolution appeared to be in peril in both chambers, Cummings demurred.
“I think the president has already shown strength. He’s the one who’s shown strength. Hello? He’s shown strength. He’s the one who said, ‘let’s go in,’” Cummings said. “He will make the very best case that he can to the Congress and to the country and then it will be up to the Congress to vote.”
CBC Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, sounded open to supporting the president after the meeting.
“President Obama has asked Members of Congress to authorize a military strike on Syria for violating international law in the use of chemical weapons by the government on its people; a request that requires each of us to thoroughly examine the evidence and exhaustively consider the consequences of military action,” she said in a statement. “I encourage Members of the Congressional Black Caucus to be extremely deliberate and thoughtful.”
The administration continued the hard sell at an all-member briefing at the Capitol on Monday — although few appeared to be swayed.
Of course, when Congress will vote remains in doubt, given Obama indicated a delay in votes after Russia proposed negotiating the Syrian government’s surrender of chemical weapons.
Cummings’ counterpart, Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., described himself on Monday evening as “a firm ‘no.’”
Issa said he came out of the briefing with “less answers and more doubt.” Issa questioned some aspects of the intelligence being presented to members and used the opportunity before the microphones to cast doubt on National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who in her prior role as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was blamed by many Republicans for how she portrayed the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
“Additionally — not coincidentally, I guess — Ambassador Rice is in there and let’s understand that a week after Benghazi they were confident a video had caused the attack on our consulate and certainly wasn’t true,” Issa said.
Issa also expressed skepticism about Russia’s new willingness to help avert the need for military intervention: “If the Russians can in this case get weapons out of the hands of all parties, than that’s something we should work out … I think in fairness, Russia will continue to support the Assad administration no matter what they do.
“He’s still an evil man from an evil empire,” Issa added of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin.
Issa suggested that votes in the House and Senate to authorize force in Syria be delayed until stakeholders can see if developments in Russia come to fruition.
But that wasn’t something Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., necessarily supports.
“I personally think there’s value in accelerating the final details on the Russian proposal,” said Ellison. “We should put pressure on the Russian proposal to get finalized. I don’t think the Russian proposal has been made simply because they’ve gotten religion. I think they’ve realized their client is about to face some serious consequences.”
And there’s a “fair chance” that they made this proposal, Ellison added, just for the purposes of delaying U.S. intervention in Syria.
Ellison is in a key position as a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who supports the military force in the region. Many of the caucus members are in opposition, or are at least leaning toward opposition, and his co-chairman, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., has said he won’t support the authorizing resolution.
On Monday night, Ellison said he hadn’t made a decision yet whether to whip votes in the caucus, but that whatever happens he doesn’t expect it will fracture the cohesion of the CPC.
“I’m not really sweating the politics,” Ellison said. “We haven’t made any decision on how we’re going to move forward with this. We have 99 issues we agree on almost 100 percent all the time. This one thing is not gonna divide us.”
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters after the Monday night briefing that he was still against intervention — and that he still didn’t understand why Congress was involved now in the first place.
“It’s ridiculous they are putting the Congress through this. The White House should never have done this. They’re upping the pressure on the members and there’s no clear objective here as to what the strategy is,” Nunes said.
“The War Powers Act clearly says you should consult the Congress. You never go to Congress for authorization unless you are gonna go to war … I think there would have been people from both parties and the American people would have been upset [had Congress not been consulted] but for the most part when the nation goes to war most of us fall in line and try to support our men and women there in the battlefield.
“He would have had more sense, if he wanted to do a limited strike, to strike quickly and early,” Nunes continued. “Too much time has gone by.”