No U.S. president has ever been turned down by Congress when asking to use military force.
President Barack Obama doesn’t want to become the first.
To avoid that with a request for military action in Syria, he’ll have to win over war-weary Democrats, Tea Party members who don’t see a threat to U.S. interests and other lawmakers who want more details and more time.
Obama has supporters on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Senate, where he’ll need a handful of Republican votes. It’s a tougher path in the House, where an alliance of Tea Party members and left-leaning Democrats is coalescing against using force in Syria.
The president drew support from congressional leaders today after meeting with leaders of both parties at the White House.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said only the U.S. has the capability to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and “to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said he would vote in favor of using military force, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said Congress is likely to support Obama’s request.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the Senate probably will act first on any Syria measure. He said he and committee Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, are near agreement on how to structure a “more limited” resolution than what Obama has sought.
The White House has begun a full-scale lobbying mission to convince skeptics that a bombing campaign is justified and will deter further use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime.
“I don’t think people’s minds are changing,” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who attended a briefing at the Capitol on Sept. 1. “They’re probably getting more settled in their opinions.”
Obama’s military advisers met with more than 100 lawmakers at the Capitol for almost three hours on Sept. 1 and had a 70-minute conference call with House Democrats yesterday.
Also yesterday, Obama met with Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who afterward said they were encouraged the White House had a Syria strategy they could support. McCain said congressional leaders are working on a more limited use-of-force resolution that would rule out sending U.S. ground forces to Syria.
“They have a selling job to do,” said McCain, who added that a vote against the resolution would be “catastrophic.”
The White House has plenty of work to do before the full House and Senate return from a five-week recess on Sept. 9. Committee hearings on the resolution start today in the Senate and continue tomorrow in the House.
So far, Obama has had little success swaying Congress on much of anything. Lawmakers rejected his call for tougher regulations on gun sales, haven’t adopted a budget in both chambers in four years and, so far, disagree over immigration changes he’s requested. Repealing or defunding Obama’s health care law, his signature domestic policy accomplishment, remains a priority for Republicans.
If lawmakers deny Obama’s request for force in Syria, it would be a historic moment. Congress has never outright rejected a president’s request for military force, said Richard Grimmett, a former international security specialist for the Congressional Research Service, in an interview.
Including the first request targeting France in 1798, Congress has endorsed 11 formal declarations of war and the use of force in 11 other conflicts, according to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report that Grimmett co-authored. The closest Congress came to rejecting a request was in 1815 when President James Madison initially sought a declaration of war against Algiers and lawmakers instead authorized the use of force, Grimmett said.
The source of skepticism among current members of Congress is whether use of chemical weapons requires military action and if strikes would deter Assad from using weapons again. Obama has said he reserves the right to order strikes against Syria without approval from Congress.
Some lawmakers, led by Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, want to avoid intervening in foreign wars. Others, including Representative Janice Hahn, a California Democrat, said the war in Syria doesn’t present a significant threat to the U.S.
“I feel terrible about the chemical weapons that have been used,” said Hahn, who is opposed to the resolution. “However, we know that chemical weapons have been used in other instances, and we did not take military action.”
Representative John Carney, a Delaware Democrat, said he was stopped by a constituent inside a Dunkin’ Donuts shop who urged him to “make it quick” in Syria. Later, while power-washing his deck, Carney said his brother interrupted to make the case for opposition.
In both instances, Carney said there were lingering bad feelings over the Iraq war, which Congress authorized with large bipartisan majorities in 2002.
Obama’s administration needs to “help people understand why this is important, particularly in the context of what’s happened in the last 10 years,” Carney said. “That’s what my constituents are weary of.”
A worry for lawmakers is that their votes on a Syria resolution could become campaign fodder as they head into the 2014 congressional elections. Several lawmakers, including Cole, have town-hall meetings in their districts this week and expect to hear about Syria.
Constituents “want to know what are we getting into next?” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, who participated in the House call yesterday. She said she’s undecided about the resolution.
Still, there’s a contingent of lawmakers who support the resolution. Representative Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat first elected in 1982, predicted that the measure would pass, saying failure would embolden Assad -- and potentially leaders of other nations -- to use chemical weapons in the future.
“Other members of Congress will step up to the plate,” Levin said. “If we do nothing, I think it sends a very wrong message.”
The divisions in Congress reflect an uncertain public.
An NBC News poll last week showed 58 percent of Americans said that use of chemical weapons in Syria required a “significant” U.S. response, while just 42 percent said that should mean military action. Support for strikes rises to 50 percent when asked about launching cruise missiles from U.S. naval ships. The poll of 700 adults has a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.
Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and one of the president’s most loyal supporters, said he was approached by men and women after a church service on Sept. 1 who urged him to avoid involvement in Syria.
“People are war weary, as I am,” Cummings said. “I don’t think many of our constituents understand the full significance of chemical and biological warfare. That’s something the president has got to spend some time explaining.”
Other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Representative Charlie Rangel, a New York Democrat, said they oppose the resolution. While the caucus is generally anti-war, several of its lawmakers will rethink their opposition and support Obama, the nation’s first black president, said House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C., Democrat.
“That will change it for some,” said Holmes Norton, a non-voting House member. “There will be some concern in the caucus about not leaving the president out there by himself.”
The automatic spending cuts called sequestration are a reason some Republican military supporters in Congress said they’re skeptical of missile strikes in Syria.
Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he opposes military action in Syria because “our military has no money left.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican, said he’s “open” to a military strike in Syria though he wants the budget issues settled.
“We cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with sequestration and military cuts hanging over their heads,” McKeon said yesterday on CNN. “We have to take care of our own people first.”
There’s also skepticism among lawmakers aligned with the Tea Party movement focused on limited government and Democrats who support expanding social safety-net programs.
Representative Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, has started an online petition to galvanize public opposition to action in Syria and promised in an Internet posting on Twitter that he’d push fellow lawmakers to do the same.
Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican endorsed by the political action committees affiliated with Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, Washington-based limited-government groups, posted an Internet message on Sept. 1 that he was “even more skeptical” about the case for military intervention in Syria after hearing from White House officials.
“Obama admn insists this won’t be Libya, Iraq, or Afghanistan,” Amash wrote on Twitter on Sept. 1. “Next time, admn will insist this won’t be #Syria, Libya, Iraq, or Afghanistan.”