WASHINGTON (AP) — Persuading first-term Republicans in the House is President Barack Obama’s toughest sell on military strikes against Syria.
Many of the three dozen freshmen come from solidly GOP districts where voters have a deep distrust of the president on health care and immigration. Members of the Washington establishment just a few months, the freshmen barely know Obama, as his invitations to exclusive White House dinners, part of the president’s postelection charm offensive, have been to senators only.
For these first-termers, their only brush with the president came in March when Obama visited Capitol Hill to talk with all House Republicans. Today he’s asking them to vote for war, and their reluctance highlights the president’s daunting task in securing congressional approval.
“I haven’t heard a word about how the targeted, limited strikes protect America’s national security,” Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski said in an interview. “How does this fit into a long-term plan for the Middle East? What is the endgame? Giving (Syrian President Bashar) Assad two weeks to move all his weaponry around while we sit here and do whatever the president’s doing? I’ve got a lot of questions; my district has got a lot of questions.”
The congresswoman said the president needs to make the case to a wary American public and Congress. “That’s not yet been done,” said Walorski, a House Armed Services Committee member who described herself as undecided.
Among the Republican freshmen class of 37, including returning members such as Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Steve Stockman of Texas, at least six lawmakers have said they would vote against giving Obama the authority to use military force against Syria, two have announced their support and the rest remain undecided. The president faces growing congressional opposition from Republicans and Democrats even though a Senate committee delivered crucial support with a narrow vote Wednesday for force.
Three members of the Senate Armed Services announced their opposition on Thursday: Republicans David Vitter of Louisiana and Mike Lee of Utah, and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia. An Associated Press survey found 36 senators in support, 29 against and 35 undecided ahead of votes next week.
The president has argued that a limited military response is warranted after chemical weapons attacks that the administration says killed more than 1,400 civilians, including at least 400 children. The Syrian government denies responsibility, contending that rebels fighting to topple the Assad government were to blame.
Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and an announced ‘no’ vote, challenged Obama’s argument that the credibility of the international community and Congress was on the line.
“Did we have credibility under Ronald Reagan?” Radel said in an interview. “Chemical weapons under Saddam Hussein were used in 1987 and we did nothing and I do not think that our credibility was compromised in any way, shape or form.”
Radel is one House freshman who has had a personal connection with Obama, albeit brief.
“I got to shake his hand, meet him, actually shared a little moment,” Radel said, recalling the GOP conference meeting in March. “I lived in Chicago a couple of years and I know for a fact that he used to frequent a blues club where I’d hang out.”
Another Republican freshman, Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin, said in a statement that “it is not the responsibility of the United States to get involved in a country’s civil war. Neither side in this civil war has the United States’ best interest in mind.”
Two GOP freshmen said they would support military action: Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana, president of the freshman class, and Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. Messer warned the administration that it must do more to rally support.
“America doesn’t like to watch bullies stand by and do evil things to their people. But the American people inherently understand, intuitively understand, that there are high risks to action here too,” Messer told Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, at a House hearing Wednesday.
“And if I were to make a suggestion, I think we’ve got a lot of work to do to help the American people understand why the risks of action are less than the risk of inaction,” he said.
The top two Republicans in the House — Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia — support Obama on limited military action against Syria, but rank-and-file Republicans have repeatedly bucked the leadership this year, at least on domestic issues. A vote to authorize military force is a matter of conscience in which leadership is unlikely to pressure lawmakers.
Defense hawks such as Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee and an aggressive proponent of military strikes, have little sway with House Republicans, especially the 100-plus who were elected in the past two elections. Many of the tea party-driven 2010 class and the 2012 lineup comprise the GOP’s noninterventionist wing.
Potentially influential with freshmen is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group. In a statement this week, the organization urged lawmakers to back military force, saying, “Barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass.”
A large delegation of AIPAC members plan to press lawmakers on Capitol Hill next week.
Walorski, the Indiana freshman, was part of a congressional group that traveled to Israel last month on a trip sponsored by the education foundation of AIPAC.
“We were standing on the Syrian border two weeks ago and the artillery fire — you could hear it, you could feel it in your feet, you could feel it in your chest, nonstop,” Walorski said.
New York Rep. Chris Collins recalled staring across the Golan Heights into Syria.
“The Israeli position will carry some weight with me,” Collins said in an interview. “They are the country that would bear the brunt of any kind of retaliation.”