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US House Democrats Still Doubt Obama Has Votes for Syria Strikes Measure

Sep. 11, 2013 - 04:58PM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
Members Of Congress Receive Classified Briefing On
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said that if Obama had not threatened to use force against Syria, the Russians would not have offered to help seize Syria's chemical arsenal. (Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — US House Democrats are eager to hand President Barack Obama sole credit for a Russian plan to avert American military action in Syria — but several said Wednesday the commander in chief still lacks enough votes to pass a use-of-force resolution.

Democrats filed out of an early morning classified briefing on Syria and told reporters that, while their caucus remains divided over launching military strikes, they are unified about one thing: Had Obama not walked to the edge of war with Bashar al-Assad, his allies in Moscow never would have offered to take the lead in seizing Syria’s chemical arsenal.

“The fact is that [Obama] basically single-handedly slowed down Assad … and has done it without support of Congress,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “If he had already made a decision [to strike] we wouldn’t be having this Russian-Syrian [proposal] at all. So I think we’ve got to give the president some credit.

“I give him high praise. He made a decision. He said, ‘I’m ready to go,’ ” Cummings added. “I think Assad knows this is the same person who took out Osama bin Laden. He gets that.”

Asked if Obama, in a prime time address Tuesday evening on Syria and in outreach to lawmakers, is swaying opinion on striking Assad regime targets if the Russian plan falls apart, Cummings said: “I don’t know about that.”

House Appropriations Defense subcommittee member Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., told Defense News as he entered the briefing that, even after the president’s case-making speech, a use-of-force authorization measure appears doomed in the House.

And that, the veteran lawmaker said, could doom a coming effort to address the remaining nine years of sequestration and a showdown over the nation’s borrowing limit.

“We can’t take it to the floor because we know what would happen,” Moran said. “You don’t take something to the floor … if it’s not the outcome you want. We can’t take this Syria vote to floor. The president would suffer a severe repudiation of his policy, and we need a strong president to get us through these fiscal policies.”

Senior Obama administration officials are talking with their Russian counterparts in an attempt to verify whether Moscow’s plan to have Assad’s chemical arsenal transferred to international control is feasible — or just a way to stall US strikes.

Obama has asked lawmakers to put off any votes on resolutions that would authorize him to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles toward Syria. They are obliging, but say they’ll continue work on the language of several force resolutions working through Congress.

It is the very threat of Tomahawk missile strikes, Democrats and Republicans agree, that caused Russia to step forward.

“I believe Congress should continue to craft some responses,” House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., told reporters. “This is not the time to tell the Russians, ‘You don’t have to continue to be serious about this proposal.’ This is not the time to lose leverage. This is the time to continue to use a robust set of tools, and for Congress to exert its authority.”

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida said “it’s not surprising that members are taking their time and being very thoughtful about the conclusion that they come to.”

“Most members that I’ve talked to — both House and the Senate — are pretty clear that we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in, where we have the potential for a diplomatic and political solution, without the credible threat of [US] force hanging over the heads of Syria.”

Democratic members said they were unable to determine whether any of their undecided colleagues are leaning toward supporting any use-of-force measure that may receive a vote should Russia or Assad nix the diplomatic plan.

“Most of the focus of my colleagues is on understanding the Russian proposal,” Israel said. “To understand what the process will be to ensure that it is viable, workable, transparent and will have the objective of deterring further use of chemical weapons.”

Wasserman-Schultz said members are focused on “verifying then trusting” the Russians’ intent to follow through on the plan.

She called the president’s prime time address “a really strong speech.”

“I think he clearly laid out the case, presented the evidence,” Wasserman-Schultz said. “Beyond the case that I think the president convincingly made, I think he also made the moral case.”

Lawmakers have, as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Tuesday, “hit the pause button” on moving toward votes to authorize military strikes.

As they wait to see whether the White House determines Moscow is serious, Moran said Obama’s diplomatic gambit has allowed him to — temporarily, at least — avoid a major political stumble at home.

Securing all of Syria’s chemical stockpile is “a very problematic situation,” Moran said. “But it has served its purpose of getting this vote off of the House floor. And that’s a noble purpose.

“What implications does it have? Maybe we can move beyond this,” he said. “Maybe the president has learned a lesson: When you know what’s right, you just have to do it — and then explain what you did and why you did it.”

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