House Republicans Say Voters Oppose Intervention

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MIDWEST CITY, Okla. -- Representative Tom Cole started hearing it in the morning when he went to grab coffee.

"I was just at Starbucks, and a woman there recognized me," he told a Chamber of Commerce gathering here. "She said, 'Everybody here's a no on Syria.'  "

Mr. Cole, a six-term Republican, would seem a potential candidate to support President Obama on Syria. A pragmatic Congressional veteran, he has been open to compromise with the White House in the past and is not afraid to break with House conservatives. But after portraying himself as leaning against a strike, Mr. Cole on Thursday afternoon came down firmly in the opposition when his office issued a statement announcing that he would vote no.

Given the intensity of opposition in his district, he said it would take a "road to Damascus experience" to change his mind now. "I literally cannot walk across the parking lot without being stopped to talk about this issue," he said. "I haven't seen anything quite like this."

He is hardly alone. Fewer than a dozen House Republicans, a total that includes the top two leaders, have publicly said they would back the president on a military strike, making the White House climb to a House majority exceedingly steep given significant Democratic resistance as well. Not only is the administration not winning over Republicans, it lost at least one it had. Representative Michael G. Grimm, Republican of New York, said Thursday that he was reversing his support. "The moment to show our strength has passed," he said.

Mr. Cole's constituent experience is not isolated. Representative Mick Mulvaney, a Republican swept into power in 2010 in military-focused South Carolina on a platform of small government, said that in his three-plus years in Congress, no issue had elicited as passionate a response as Syria. And, he added, "to say it's 99 percent against would be overstating the support."

Of the 1,000 or so calls and e-mails he has received, 3 supported some kind of response. And two-thirds of the correspondents had never reached out to him before.

Representative Candice S. Miller, Republican of Michigan, said she was at a peach festival parade last weekend in her district, an event that does not typically draw the type of constituent who is overly political. But as she made her way down the parade route, one person after another urged her to vote no on any authorization of force in Syria.

"It was not a political event at all," Ms. Miller said. "But there were a lot of people, older veterans especially in their hats, all saying, 'No on Syria!'  "

In the face of such overwhelming constituent opposition, Congressional Republican leaders are treading extremely lightly. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, has come out strongly for military intervention in Syria, but in a one-on-one conversation with Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, he did not press the point, Mr. Chaffetz said.

In Mr. Cole's case, speaker after speaker at an evening town hall meeting questioned Mr. Obama's assertion that he has constitutional authority to strike on his own -- and insisted that Congress not give him authority.

"Where does he get this -- a Cracker Jack box?" asked Steve Byas, who teaches government at Hillsdale Free Will Baptist College in Moore, Okla. Criticizing Mr. Obama's "red line," Mr. Byas added, "Just because the president made a statement he should not have made should not bind the Congress to go ahead and approve this."

The applause Mr. Byas received from the crowd of 150 people mirrored the flow of telephone calls Mr. Cole's office aides have fielded. "Not one" in favor of striking Syria, he said.

The majority of people Mr. Cole represents in this southwest Oklahoma district rarely support Mr. Obama on much of anything; two-thirds of voters here backed the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, in November. At the town meeting, which stretched beyond three hours in a Rose State College lecture hall, constituents derided Mr. Obama as a socialist, demanded that Republicans shut down the government to block his health care plan, and called for his impeachment. Many House Republicans have echoed those sentiments, seemingly making it difficult for them to back the president on his Syria plan despite their embrace of American military power.

Tinker Air Force Base, employing 8,000 soldiers and 15,000 civilians here, gives the area an affinity for the military. But that does not translate into reflexive support for the mission the commander in chief wants to order.

Partly that reflects the military's traditional hesitance about hazy and circumscribed mission objectives. Before Mr. Obama decided to strike in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, warned Congress in a letter this summer that "deeper involvement is hard to avoid."

But wariness here is also a measure of years of strain on American forces, from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and, lately, the budget squeeze at home.

Over lunch at Tinker, Lt. Gen. Bruce Litchfield told Mr. Cole that the six furlough days caused by "sequester" budget cuts had cost the base $77 million and degraded readiness. At the town meeting, a civilian employee at the base complained that workers who lost six days' pay have not had a raise for four years.

"The American people are getting a little war weary," said Tom Hinkle, 58, an Army veteran who noted that some troops had faced four or five deployments. "Who's guarding our backs?"

Amanda Miller, 30, an unemployed mental health worker, warned, "This could get ugly very quickly." Cheryl Cooper, an Air Force retiree, suggested that Congress calculate how much the administration has spent preparing for a Syria strike and "take it off the Obamacare."

Mr. Cole, chief of staff at the Republican National Committee before winning his House seat, has occasionally raised the ire of more aggressive Tea Party-style conservatives. One activist in the back of his town hall meeting handed out fliers casting him as disloyal to the Republican cause.

Mr. Cole genially deflected talk of socialism and impeachment, and disappointed some of those on hand by telling them Republicans lack the power to repeal the health care law. He praised the administration's responsiveness after a tornado ravaged his hometown, Moore, in May.

He also praised Mr. Obama for seeking Congressional authorization of the Syria mission. But he rejected every argument the administration has made for it.

"It's a civil war, it's a proxy war between regional powers, and it's a religious war," Mr. Cole said in an interview. "Is there any direct security threat to the United States here? No. There's really not."

He predicted the Democratic-controlled Senate would back the president. Mr. Obama has "a good chance" of prevailing in the House, Mr. Cole said, but it is no sure thing.

"If I break with my district, I better have an awfully compelling reason," he said. "I'm going to listen to that kind of expert opinion. But I'm sure going to listen to opinion at the Starbucks."

John Harwood reported from Midwest City, and Jonathan Weisman from Washington.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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