Obama fights for votes to back plan for Syria

Due to address nation Tuesday; aides make calls

A group against US military action in Syria marched to Capitol Hill on Saturday.
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
A group against US military action in Syria marched to Capitol Hill on Saturday.

WASHINGTON — Each morning for the past week, at 7:45, more than a dozen White House aides have mustered in the corner office of President Obama’s chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, to get marching orders for what has become the most intense, uphill lobbying campaign of the Obama presidency.

The White House’s goal is to persuade Congress to authorize a limited military strike against Syria to punish it for a deadly chemical weapons attack. But after a frenetic week of wall-to-wall intelligence briefings, dozens of phone calls and hours of hearings with senior members of Obama’s war council, more and more lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, are lining up to vote against the president.

Officials were guardedly optimistic about the Senate, but the blows kept coming. On Saturday, Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, perhaps the most endangered incumbent up for reelection, came out against the authorization to use force.


In the House, the number of rank-and-file members who have declared that they will oppose or are leaning against military action is approaching 218, the point of no return for the White House. Getting them to reverse their positions will be extremely difficult.

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Administration officials say publicly that they are not rattled by such grim vote counts. The debate, they say, will only be fully engaged this week, when Congress returns from recess and Obama is back from his trip to Sweden and Russia. On Tuesday night, he will lay out his case for a military strike to the nation in a speech from the White House.

“It’s too early to jump to any conclusions on where the House or Senate is,” McDonough said in an interview Friday. “The effort will only intensify next week.”

To improve its odds, the White House is enlisting virtually every senior official from the president on down. In addition to members of Congress, it is reaching out to Jewish groups, Arab-Americans, left-leaning think tanks, and even officials from the George W. Bush administration, some of whom are acting as surrogates.

It is also getting help from the nation’s most powerful pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is mounting its own campaign for military action.


The White House and its allies in Congress differ on how the administration handled the first week of the campaign. Administration officials said they succeeded in dispelling doubts about whether the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, carried out the chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Syria’s capital, Damascus, on Aug. 21 that they say left more than 1,400 people dead.

“We set a goal this week of making sure people understood the facts of the case,” McDonough said Friday. “No one with whom I’ve spoken doubts the intelligence. We’re not really debating the veracity of the central charge.”

But people on Capitol Hill said the White House’s initial case for action proved unpersuasive, particularly in the hearings with Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey.

Lawmakers came away believing that Dempsey projected an image of military reluctance, that Hagel seemed occasionally unsure of himself, and that Kerry exuded an air of confidence that some members appreciated and others chafed at.

The next phase of the campaign will be more individualized, and more from Obama himself. Democrats who balk are being asked at least to vote against Republican procedural moves meant to delay or derail an up-or-down vote. After all the arguments are exhausted, aides said, it will come down to a personal pitch: The president needs you to save him from a debilitating public defeat.


But first, advisers said, the president needs to explain to the public in his speech Tuesday why Syria is not another Iraq.

“Right now, to most of the country, this seems like a simple question of, ‘Is Congress going to vote to start another war?’” said David Plouffe, a former senior adviser to Obama who, like other veterans of his 2008 campaign, was back in the West Wing last week. “Tuesday night and other opportunities can help fill in the picture for people about both the rationale and limited nature of the response.”

Among the most visible surrogates could be Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state, who aides say is likely to address Syria at one or both of two events this week: a previously scheduled visit to the White House on Monday to promote wildlife conservation, and a speech the next day in Philadelphia.

The White House is also putting officials, including the president, before audiences and TV cameras. Obama will tape interviews Monday with the three broadcast networks, as well as PBS, CNN and Fox.

McDonough will appear on all five Sunday news programs, and Monday the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, will address the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute.

Flying home from St. Petersburg, Russia, Obama called half a dozen Democratic senators, including Tom Udall of New Mexico, who voted against authorizing force in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, who voted present.

Leaders in both parties say that there is a narrow window to win or change enough votes to secure passage of the authorization, but that window may close before Obama’s speech.

The last time the White House lobbied this intensively on a single issue was the 2009 health care law. But unlike that battle, which was largely pitched to the Democratic ranks, the White House this time is also appealing to Republicans. Administration officials note that in private conversations, lawmakers repeatedly asked to have their voices heard on Syria.