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Back in the Bubble, Will Congress Shift on Syria?

By Shane Goldmacher

National Journal

Waving the flag of the Syrian rebels, demonstrators opposed to the government of President Bashar Assad gather on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Monday,  as Congress prepares to debate President Obama’s proposed military strike against Syria (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite). Waving the flag of the Syrian rebels, demonstrators opposed to the government of President Bashar Assad gather on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Monday, as Congress prepares to debate President Obama’s proposed military strike against Syria (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite).

President Obama's best -- and perhaps last -- chance to convince reluctant members of Congress to support a Syria strike may be simply getting them out of their districts and back inside the Beltway bubble.

With constituent phone calls and emails running overwhelming against intervention, proponents of striking Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons are banking on getting lawmakers away from boisterous anti-war town halls and into somber, classified briefings about the details of chemical warfare and the costs of inaction.

The first big test will come on Monday evening, when top Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, are scheduled to deliver a classified briefing for the entire House.

Opponents of striking Syria say it may already be too late to win over the GOP-controlled chamber, where the path to passage remains steepest.

"It's dead. Completely dead," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., an opponent of intervention and member of the House Intelligence Committee, told National Journal. "The House, for sure, it's not even going to be close." Nunes, elected in 2002, added he has "never been so sure about something in my whole career here."

Even some within the president's party are publicly advising him to the pull the plug. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union, "If I were the president, I would withdraw my request."

To turn the tide, the White House began executing a two-pronged strategy over the weekend. First, there is the increased closed-door lobbying sessions in Washington. Second, they've launched a major media push to reshape public opinion, including the release of verified videos showing the chemical attacks. On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough spun through all the major shows. On Monday, Obama himself is set to do interviews with six networks. On Tuesday, he will address the nation.

The offensive comes as media-created vote tallies show Obama in deep trouble on a Syria war-authorization measure. Still, congressional nose-counters and strike proponents, which include both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican House Speaker John Boehner, note that the majority of lawmakers still have not received classified briefings. "It's premature," said a Pelosi aide of the tallies.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., an opponent of involvement in Syria, explained the looming lobbying effort this way: "The strategy among leadership is to present you with a classified briefing and then, when the briefings are over, to tell you, 'Now you have more information than your constituents, so it's OK if you vote differently than they want you to vote.'"

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said as much last week. "There's no question: What's coming in is overwhelmingly negative," she told reporters of constituent feedback about intervening in Syria. "But you see, then they don't know what I know. They haven't heard what I've heard."

Not everyone agrees. "If Americans could read classified docs, they'd be even more against #Syria action," Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a leading libertarian voice in the House, wrote on Twitter over the weekend.

The problem for the White House is that even lawmakers on the intelligence panels aren't unified in support of a strike. "My guess is that an overwhelming majority of the members on the [House] Intelligence Committee, at least on the Republican side, are against it," Nunes said. Those are typically the leadership's top lieutenants in making the case on such national security matters.

Then there is the hangover from being sold classified intelligence in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who opposes getting involved in Syria, said Feinstein's invocation of classified intelligence "is a bit disingenuous."

"That's playing on the war on Iraq and we got bad intelligence and everybody feels they got burned on it," Sanders told National Journal.

The selling of the administration's case behind closed doors is already in full swing. Vice President Joe Biden hosted lawmakers in the Situation Room on Friday to make the case for intervention. He followed that up with a dinner Sunday to pitch some Senate Republicans on the administration's plans. Obama and other officials have been working the phones with lawmakers and important caucuses, as well. McDonough held conference calls with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Hispanic Caucus last week; Rice briefed members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Still, there is grumbling on Capitol Hill about the White House's scattershot outreach. It did not go unnoticed, for instance, that President Obama golfed on Saturday with his usual cohort of friends and aides, rather than any wavering lawmakers.

Rep. Adam Kingziner, R-Ill., who is in favor of a strike, said on ABC's This Week that his offer earlier in the week to help round up votes had gone unacknowledged. "I haven't heard back from the White House yet," Kinzinger said. "I don't even know who my White House liaison is."

Joining the White House this week in lobbying Capitol Hill will be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby that is in favor of a strike on Syria. That effort is seen as critical to uniting war-weary Democrats and some more hawkish Republicans who have expressed skepticism about Obama's proposed strikes.

"There's no question when you get a call from the president or you get lobbied by campaign contributors, those things have an impact," Sanders said.

Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats, said Democrats he's spoken with feel the tug of party loyalty and not wanting to undercut Obama so publicly in the first year of his second term. But Sanders said such loyalty doesn't typically outweigh overwhelming public opposition.

"In my office, 95 percent of the emails and phone calls we're getting are in opposition," he said. "Senators and congresspeople are not stupid and if an overwhelming majority in their districts are telling them not to vote to go to war I suspect they won't support that."

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