Opposition to Syria plan runs deep in House

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WASHINGTON -- Suggesting an uphill fight for President Barack Obama, House members staking out positions are either opposed to or leaning against his plan for a U.S. military strike against Syria by more than a 6-1 margin, an Associated Press survey shows. The Senate is more evenly divided ahead of its vote next week.

Still, the situation is very fluid. Nearly half of the 433-member House and a third of the 100-member Senate remain undecided.

By their statements or those of aides, only 30 members of the Republican-led House support intervention or are leaning in favor of authorizing the president to use force against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government in response to a chemical weapons attack last month. Some 192 House members outright oppose U.S. involvement or are leaning against authorization, according to the AP survey.

The situation in the Democrat-controlled Senate is better for Mr. Obama, but hardly conclusive ahead of a potential vote next week. The AP survey showed those who support or are leaning in favor of military action holding a slight 34-32 advantage over those opposed or leaning against it. Complicating the effort in the Senate is the possibility that a three-fifths majority may be required.

Still, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, predicted, "I think we're going to get 60 votes."

Speaking Friday after a summit of world leaders in St. Petersburg, Russia, Mr. Obama acknowledged the difficulties he faces in seeking support for action. He said he would address the nation Tuesday. "It's conceivable at the end of the day I don't persuade a majority of the American people that it's the right thing to do," the president said.

But Mr. Obama, who again would not say what he would do if Congress rebuffed him, expressed confidence that the people and their lawmakers would listen to his case. "Failing to respond," he said, "would send a signal to rogue nations, authoritarian regimes and terrorist organizations that they can develop and use weapons of mass destruction and not pay a consequence."

Whatever Mr. Obama might decide, a rejection from Congress would have wide-ranging ramifications in the United States and abroad. If the administration goes ahead with cruise missile strikes and other limited action against Syrian targets, it could risk a constitutional crisis with angry lawmakers ahead of other confrontations about raising the U.S. debt ceiling, funding the government, overhauling immigration law and implementing Mr. Obama's health care changes.

The alternative -- stepping back after weeks of warlike threats -- could project weakness to a foe the United States says has repeatedly launched chemical weapons attacks. It also could send a signal that the nation is too divided internally to back up its declarations with actions on issues ranging from preventing Iran's development of nuclear weapons to containing the threat posed by North Korea's erratic, nuclear-armed dictatorship.

How difficult is Mr. Obama's challenge in Congress? Only 21 House members publicly back a resolution to attack Syria, and nine say they are considering support. Some 100 House members oppose Mr. Obama's plan, and 92 say they are leaning against it.

Opposition runs deep among Republicans and Democrats. So far, GOP lawmakers stand 148-9 against military action, accounting for leaners. Democrats are opposed by a tally of 44-21. For Mr. Obama to succeed, he'll have to win about 90 percent of undecided House members -- or change the minds of those who are leaning against him.

After a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, polls have shown Americans consistently oppose intervention in Syria, a fact Mr. Obama acknowledged Friday after meeting with fellow leaders at the G-20 summit. He compared the situation to previous crises when America had to engage for the good of the world.

"These kinds of interventions, these kinds of actions are always unpopular because they seem distant and removed," Mr. Obama said. "I'm not drawing an analogy to World War II, other than to say, you know, when London was getting bombed, it was profoundly unpopular, both in Congress and around the country, to help the British."

The intervention "in Kosovo, very unpopular, but ultimately I think it was the right thing to do, and the international community should be glad that it came together to do it," he added. "When people say that it is a terrible stain on all of us that hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Rwanda, well -- imagine if Rwanda was going on right now and we asked, should we intervene in Rwanda? I think it's fair to say that it probably wouldn't poll real well."

Mr. Obama has support among House leaders of both parties. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi of California and Steny Hoyer of Maryland are on board. But many rank-and-file members of both parties either oppose attacking Syria or are sitting on the sidelines until they learn more about the administration's plans and see which way political momentum turns.

There is still plenty of time for the administration to persuade undecided House members or those who have publicly expressed skepticism about military engagement. All House members are invited to a classified briefing Monday night, after Congress officially returns from summer break. House Democrats will meet Tuesday morning with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, and House Republicans will meet separately at the same time.

Senate Republicans and Democrats will hold their weekly policy luncheons Tuesday, a day before a likely vote to move forward on a resolution authorizing force.

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