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Syria Will Be Hard Sell in the House, Despite Classified Briefing (Updated)

Updated 5:12 p.m. | Scores of skeptical lawmakers attended a classified briefing on Syria at the Capitol on Sunday, but not a single member seemed to think a resolution authorizing force against the war-torn nation could pass at the present time.

Indeed, the challenge for House and Senate leaders — who appear to largely be supportive of a U.S. strike in retaliation for the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons — will be in changing the minds of members who said they still fail to see what President Barack Obama’s ultimate goal is.

A House GOP aide suggested that if anything passes, it will be because House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is able to convince enough Democrats to vote for it.

Democrats and Republicans do not typically do whip counts on “conscience” measures, such as authorization to go to war. A Democratic leadership aide said that leaders had not yet discussed whether to whip in this case.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California, however, said he would not be “counting votes” and demurred when asked whether he thought it was an accurate assessment that Democrats would need to deliver the votes to pass the resolution.

“What matters to me is to be able to vote my conscience … on something as serious as authorizing the use of military force,” Becerra told reporters following the briefing’s conclusion. “Quite honestly I’m not going to look to count votes one way or another. If the majority of members of congress of the House and the Senate decide ‘no,’ that’s the will of the two bodies. If they decide ‘yes,’ that’s the will of the two bodies.”

If neither side whips, the vote could be a failure for Obama, given the reaction most members who attended the briefing had.

For example, former House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said if the vote were held today, Congress would vote it down.

“I think that it wouldn’t pass. I think that the president has a very skeptical Congress and even more skeptical public to deal with,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “So far he doesn’t have congressional authority, he doesn’t have the American people with him, and he doesn’t have an international coalition. So there are big hurdles that’s he’s got to go through.”

Asked whether she thought the president would go ahead with the strike even if Congress refused to authorize military action, Ros-Lehtinen said she’s been in that situation before.

“I voted against the Kosovo intervention, and President Clinton went ahead anyway,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “So been there, done that.”

She added, “I think you lose credibility when that happens. I think the president really needs this congressional authorization.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. — a close ally of Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio — said he also didn’t think that, if members voted today, Congress would authorize action, but he acknowledged that the dynamic could change before the House votes sometime next week.

“But you know, again, 10 days is a long time in politics.The president has got an opportunity to make his case,” Cole said. “And clearly most of us have not had a chance to really look at the evidence. And so I’m sure we’ll have enough time to do that and act in a deliberate way.”

Cole particularly expressed skepticism over Obama’s vow that he is not contemplating sending troops to fight on the ground in Syria as well as over what the president’s ultimate goal is.

“That’s one of the things that makes me question it,” Cole said. “If we’re not going to destroy or secure the stocks, if we’re not trying to change the regime, if this is all about making a point — and not a particularly effective one at that — then that strikes me as a rather frivolous use of American military power.”

“When we use it, we ought to mean it,” Cole said.

Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut said the briefing was attended by 100 to 150 members and that most of them were not satisfied with the way the White House worded its proposed authorization of force. (A senior administration official later said about 70 members showed up to the briefing.)

“There was a lot of concern for the resolution as drafted is overly broad,” Himes said. “You know, it has no limitations in either time or scope of activity, including boots on the ground, which I think pretty much nobody has an appetite for.”

He added that he sensed “pretty much zero support for boots on the ground and, in fact, a great deal of skepticism even for limited strikes.”

Himes said the briefing did include a discussion of the intelligence and the evidence that President Bashar al-Assad’s military had used chemical weapons, but he said more of the discussion was about the implications of a strike.

“To me,” Himes said, “there’s profoundly unanswered questions about effectiveness, about what happens next, about whether we’ve got any international support out there at all for military action, and whether this is a wise idea. So I’m a long way from being a yes vote on even a narrower resolution.”

While many members seemed open to changing their skepticism, others indicated they had already made up their minds. Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, said he doesn’t think a resolution on the use of force will ever pass, and he certainly will not be voting for it.

On the other side, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., said he did not think the president needed to ask Congress for permission to strike Syria.

“I’ve always contended that president has the authority to go in without congressional approval,” Engel said, adding, “I think if Congress acts like the British Parliament then I think we’ve abdicated our responsibility.”

But since Obama has asked for a vote, Engel said, “I hope the Congress will reaffirm its decision to give the president the right to strike. I’m persuaded by the White House’s argument, and I think the White House needs to make its case to the American people and the Congress. It’s been determined by the world that to use gas on your own people is a war crime.”

Similarly, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz — who also serves as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee — said her calculations so far are simple.

“This has nothing to do with politics,” said the Florida Democrat. “This has everything to do with making sure an international norm that was violated by the Syrian government cannot and should not go unanswered. That’s the only consideration that would have to come together. Politics should be completely aside in this and I can tell you there was no calculus that I or anyone else that I know is doing in terms of the impact on President Obama’s effectiveness.”

Wasserman Schultz added that when she considers how she will vote on the authorization resolution, she thinks of “the images of babies lined up dead.”

“As a mother I would want, God forbid, in the suburbs that I represent, a tyrant who went after our babies, that a nation as strong as the United States would stand up for my children,” she said.

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