Obama Could Face Uphill Battle For Syria Strike Approval

Sep 2, 2013
Originally published on September 2, 2013 2:55 pm

The Obama administration will be lobbying Congress this week for approval of its plan to carry out a strike against the Syrian government.

Over the weekend, the administration presented classified intelligence to members of Congress, and Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on five morning talk shows emphasizing evidence that the neurotoxin sarin gas was used by the Syrian government.

NPR’s Ron Elving joins us to preview what could be an uphill battle to convince Congress to approve the strikes.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Coming up on this Labor Day, the generation gap when it comes to signing up for union membership.

YOUNG: But first President Obama is meeting with Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham today to talk about Syria. These senators have been outspoken advocates for U.S. intervention in Syria, but this is just the first of many steps the administration will have to take to get approval from Congress for a strike against the government.

Over the weekend, Secretary Kerry added another thought for lawmakers to consider, telling the Sunday talk shows there's new evidence that the neurotoxin sarin was used by the Syrian government. Joining us now is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, how would you characterize the challenge for the administration?

RON ELVING, BYLINE: In the week ahead, Robin, the president really wants to set the tone and the terms of the debate that we'll have for the rest of this month. You know, formal consideration in the Congress won't begin for another week, but the issue has already been joined, it's in the media. It's being talked about in the kitchens and diners and taverns of America. So the administration and its allies have to convince the country it is time to act in Syria, time to go it alone if need be, as it seems we must, and time to take the daunting risks involved that everyone is so aware of.

So he needs to make the case for action and also the case for limited action, as opposed to some sort of full-on commitment with boots on the ground.

YOUNG: And Ron, could you just take on the question that I've heard? If this is so imperative, why didn't the president ask, as the British prime minister did, for Congress to come back? Is it about buying time to make his case?

ELVING: To some degree. It's also impractical in many respects to bring Congress back much faster and expect them to act any faster. This debate is going to take place this week back in the districts where the members are, where the senators are. They're going to be hearing from their constituents. They're going to be talking to each other. They're going to be hearing from the administration.

And when they come back next week, they'll be talking to each other, and they'll be talking on C-SPAN, and we'll see more of them. But it's really underway already. So the idea that pulling them back in a week early would make a big different, really, I don't think has a great deal of weight.

YOUNG: So the meetings today with Senators McCain and Graham, already wanting action in Syria. What is it they want to hear from President Obama?

ELVING: They want to hear that the president is prepared to go farther than he has said he would up to now. They want to see the president go for regime change, the end of the Assad dictatorship. They think anything short of that will be counterproductive and lead to a worse situation in Syria, and what they want to hear from the White House then is the exact opposite of what most members of Congress say they want to hear.

Most in Congress are fearful of regime change. They think it sounds lengthy and bloody and just like Iraq. And all the polling suggests that that's where most Americans are, too.

YOUNG: Yeah, well, and we're hearing from some on the other side of the equation, some Democrats in particular saying today that they want the resolution to be reworded because it does seem too open-ended. But just what is your sense here? This has been sort of marching inexorably along. What is your sense of time?

ELVING: In a sense, they have a week or two in which to lay this out before Congress actually votes. But in another sense we are already in the 11th hour in this debate. People are already talking about this way more than they were a week ago, before the president's announcement of Friday, way more than two weeks ago when the gas attack actually happened there in the suburbs of Damascus.

And even though the votes won't be taken until mid-month, the war for the hearts and minds of America is already underway.

YOUNG: Yeah. And by the way, I mentioned there were some on the Democratic side saying it was too open-ended. How is this vote expected to fall? Is it perfectly along party lines? I'm sure not.

ELVING: No, not this time, not as clean and absolute as the way we've been seeing of late. Some Democrats are very much opposed to the president on this, and some Republicans support a strike, and some would go further, as you were pointing out. So in the Senate, most of the opposition will likely come from Republicans, Libertarians and limited-government conservatives but also from anti-war liberal Democrats who don't see our national security interests really involved here and who fear a wider war as a result.

In the House you have Republican leaders saying they'll support the intervention, many of them, on the committee side. And you also have the Democratic speaker, Nancy Pelosi, supporting a limited strike. But you'll see the same sources of opposition we see in the Senate, in the House, just in larger numbers.

YOUNG: And Ron Elving, it's worth reminding younger listeners maybe in particular that this is not historically all that unusual for a president to seek congressional approval.

ELVING: That's right. Back in the World War II era, we actually had declarations of war, and since then Congress has primarily passed resolutions that gave the president open-ended or relatively open-ended authority. That's what we had in Vietnam. It's what we saw in Iraq in the last decade. That's more or less what the president seems to be looking for here in a limited sense.

YOUNG: Yeah, well at least seeking some approval. Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor. Ron, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Robin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.