Demonstrators protest in front of the White House on Sept. 9 urging the US not to attack Syria. (Jewel Samad / AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — There typically is a big difference between Main Street and K Street. But when it comes to lobbying US lawmakers to vote against war in Syria, Main Street USA is proving as persuasive as any lobby shop.
Congress returns to Washington on Monday for what appears to be up to two weeks of briefings, hearings, floor debates and votes on a measure to authorize President Barack Obama to strike Syria to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons. As lawmakers return, they have been on the receiving end of an uncoordinated lobbying blitz from Americans from coast-to-coast against what is feared to be another Middle East war.
In fact, a USA Today/Pew Research Center poll conducted last week found Americans, by more than a two-to-one margin (63 percent to 28 percent) oppose even a limited Syria strike.
All last week, as lawmakers emerged from classified briefings on Syria, proponents and opponents of a strike told reporters their offices have been flooded with calls from constituents pleading for them to vote against a use-of-force resolution.
Calls continue to come in from California to the office of Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Democratic Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin reported the same of his Michigan constituents, as did Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of his Alabama voters.
Levin and other lawmakers cast the coming House and Senate votes as one of conscience. For members, they say, politics should not be a factor — though cynics will doubt that.
Levin told reporters last Wednesday that lawmakers who opposed the 1991 Gulf War, even though more Americans opposed driving Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, paid a political price.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a close Obama ally in the House, told reporters last Friday that his constituents have been clear in opposing another war.
“I get the impression that a lot of people are looking at this. I just think about my constituents. Just yesterday [last Thursday] I walked through the district and I asked those kind of questions, Cummings said. “As one lady said ... ‘I disagree with my husband, but I love him to life.’ You’re going to have those disagreements.”
Cummings, following a three-hour classified briefing on Capitol Hill, noted “80 percent of our district voted for the president.”
Cummings also is a former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, and remains influential among its members — a key voting bloc Obama will need to win over in what could be a very close House vote. Cummings remains undecided, and has made clear his constituents’ views will be an important part of his calculus.
During a Tucson town hall meeting with Sen. John McCain last Thursday, several of the Arizona Republican’s constituents who oppose military strikes lectured him.
One was Jumana Hadeed, a Syrian-American who, at one point, told the Senate’s most vocal proponent of US military action that she and other citizens prefer using “diplomacy and negotiating — not bombs, Sen. McCain!”
“We cannot afford to shed more Syrian blood,” Hadeed said. “We cannot afford to turn Syria into another Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Enough is enough,” Hadeed roared, garnering applause from her fellow Arizonans. “We do not want another engagement in the Middle East. We do not want al-Qaida to take over” if Assad is ousted, she added.
McCain thanked the woman for her “passionate” and “compelling” comments. But he took umbrage with her implication that an Assad-led secular government would be better for ordinary Syrians and the region than one more aligned with the belief structure of al-Qaida.
Back in Washington earlier that day, Feinstein told reporters the calls her office has been fielding on Syria are “overwhelmingly negative.”
“It weighs on me, no question, because I’m very constituent-oriented. And every day, I get a report on what the calls are, where the calls are coming from, what the nature of the argument is, and there’s no question, what’s coming in is overwhelmingly negative,” Feinstein said.” There’s no question about that.”
Voters’ pleas will no doubt remain on lawmakers’ minds until they cast their votes. The Senate could hold a final vote late this week; the House is expected to vote on Syria next week.
When asked Monday morning by a Fox Business Channel anchor whether Americans believe a Syria strike is a good idea, Rep. Mike Turner said, “That’s not from what I’m hearing from other members of Congress, and not from the people here in Ohio.”
The House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee chairman noted Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is in his district.
Even with a large amount of military members among his constituency, Turner said nearly all of the people there are “very reticent to do this without the president affirming who are we for.”
Turner said voters in his district want to know if strikes would end up helping al-Qaida and other anti-American groups reportedly operating among anti-Assad rebel forces in Syria’s years-long civil war.
What’s more, Turner said, he shares his constituents’ concerns that America is poised to act unilaterally.
“If the president did his homework and made this an international response, that’d be different. But he hasn’t,” Turner said, predicting a use-of-force measure will likely fail in the House if Obama fails to build a global coalition.
To that end, the White House on Monday issued a statement announcing that over a dozen new nations have signed onto a joint statement condemning the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime. That brings the total signatories to 25 nations.
“We call for a strong international response to this grave violation of the world’s rules and conscience that will send a clear message that this kind of atrocity can never be repeated. Those who perpetrated these crimes must be held accountable,” the joint statement says. “The world cannot wait for endless failed processes that can only lead to increased suffering in Syria and regional instability. We support efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”
But the statement does not mention military strikes, meaning the United States may still be the only nation participating in any coming military acts in Syria.
One former national security official says that could be a big problem for Obama.
“If [Obama] does it with low public support,” John Hannah, who was a national security adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney, said at an event here last Wednesday, “I think he’s buying himself a hell of a problem.”