Congress Returns From Recess With Syria in the Spotlight

Syria tops agenda as Congress returns from summer break.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Sept. 4, 2013.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Sept. 4, 2013.

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Congress departed from Washington five weeks ago with the understanding lawmakers would be returning to budget battles, a debt ceiling showdown and a bumpy road ahead for immigration. They didn't account for what has unfolded while they were away, a president desperate for their approval to launch a military strike against Syria.

Even as a handful of key lawmakers trickled in from their summer recess last week to discuss the best options for dealing with alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, a full congressional debate is just underway.

[READ: Obama Lays Everything on the Line for Syria]

And with the way things are going, the Obama administration could be in for a major blow.

Despite public and private pleas by the administration's key messengers Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, many officials remain unconvinced that military action against Syria is a wise path for the U.S., which is still entangled in a decadelong war in Afghanistan and scarred from the incomplete intelligence that justified an invasion of Iraq.

 

A resolution to strike Syria slid through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, but barely. And lawmakers in districts across the country are coming off a long week of meetings, town halls and phone calls with constituents who overwhelmingly voiced their opposition to a missile strike against Syria.

A USA Today survey of lawmakers Sunday revealed Republicans and Democrats alike are resistant to U.S. strikes against Syria. Even in a dozen states the president easily won in both 2008 and 2012, there are lawmakers from Oregon to Massachusetts who have yet to publicly endorse the president's proposed military intervention.

[POLL: Proposed Syria Strike Least Popular Military Action in 20 Years]

A Gallup poll Friday showed only 36 percent of Americans support intervention, the lowest pre-war polling of any conflict in 20 years.

The country's decision makers are equally as skeptical.

Of the 535 members of Congress, USA Today found in a survey Sunday that only 44 members of Congress, 22 in the House and 22 in the Senate, have announced they will vote for a resolution to intervene in Syria against President Bashar Assad, who is suspected of having unleashed chemical weapons against his own people. There are 19 senators and 130 members of the House, however, that have announced they won't vote for the current Senate resolution. And a Washington Post vote tally shows more than 220 lawmakers are leaning "no" in the House, already more than the 217 it would take to kill the resolution entirely.

Even members who have publicly backed President Barack Obama's plea for action against Assad have said the Obama administration's "done an awful job" trying to turn the tide on public opinion. The White House says it has asked more than 250 lawmakers for their votes, but for a president who has failed to build a robust relationship with Congress up until this point, staffers say his pleas for help come a little too late. Obama plans a speech to the nation from the Oval Office Tuesday evening.

[READ: U.S. Has Lost Tactical Advantage in Syria, Experts Say]

"It is a confusing mess up to this point, and that has been, I think, their biggest challenge on what is an incredibly important issue," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation. "They've done an awful job explaining to the American people."

Politically, the issue is not one that divides Republicans and Democrats. Instead, Obama has seen tea party types and anti-war liberals joining forces to rally against his call for action in Syria. One Democrat even announced last week he'd be trying to round up colleagues to vote against the intervention. The White House is devoting much of its resources to gaining Democratic votes with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., saying over the weekend that he and others joined Vice President Biden in the White House situation room.

Van Hollen has advocated publicly that the White House waters down the resolution's language so that it is more limited and explicitly bans the U.S. from continuing a long-term conflict in Syria. But it's a balancing act with many key Republicans like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., demanding the resolution's language remain focused on shifting the balance of power.