President Obama answers questions during his news conference at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 6, 2013.
(Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
WASHINGTON - President Obama faces a daunting and uphill battle to win congressional authorization for a military strike on Syria, a USA TODAY Network survey of senators and representatives finds.
The comprehensive poll of Congress finds that only a small fraction of the 533 lawmakers - 22 senators and 22 House members - are willing to say they will support the use of force in response to the reported use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Far more overall - 19 senators and 130 House members - say they will oppose a resolution that would authorize military strikes.
The largest group of lawmakers remains undecided, including a majority of the Senate and the House. That could create an opportunity for the president to persuade them in a string of six interviews with TV network anchors Monday and a televised address to the nation Tuesday. The Senate could vote as early as Wednesday.
"We cannot turn a blind eye to images like the ones we've seen out of Syria," President Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday. "Failing to respond to this outrageous attack would increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again; that they would fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us, and it would send a horrible signal to other nations that there would be no consequences for their use of these weapons. All of which would pose a serious threat to our national security."
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough made the rounds of the morning talk shows Sunday, making the administration's case.
Congress isn't convinced. In the survey:
•Democrats haven't fallen in line behind the president, at least not yet. Congressional Democrats are as likely to oppose the measure as support it, although most say they are undecided. At the moment, 28 Democrats support action; 28 oppose it.
•Republicans who have made a decision overwhelmingly oppose Obama, by nearly 8-1. Sixteen Republicans support action; 121 oppose it.
•In a majority of states, not a single member of Congress has gone on record endorsing the president's request for authorization of a military strike. That includes a dozen states that Obama carried in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections: Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.
"I think it's an uphill slog from here," House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., one of the handful of Republicans who supports the president, said on CBS' Face the Nation Sunday. He said the White House has "done an awful job" in explaining the reason for a strike and added, "It's a confusing mess."
On Fox News Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he was horrified by images of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria but warned that the strikes could destabilize the country or even increase the odds that opposition forces obtain chemical weapons. "I don't think we're going to do anything to Assad," he said of the Syrian leader.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said he has heard overwhelming opposition from his constituents. "And keep in mind, my district voted 77% for the president," he said on CBS. "I think the president has work to do, but I think he can possibly get the votes. But he's got to come before the Congress and the nation."
On this issue, President Obama hasn't been able to count on the classic partisan divide that has defined the capital's politics through his tenure. Some liberal Democrats have aligned with Republican libertarians to oppose a military strike. Some GOP hawks who typically oppose him (including Arizona Sen. John McCain, whom President Obama beat for the White House in 2008) argue for action.
Even African Americans in Congress, who have been among Obama's most reliable supporters on other issues, are resistant. Of 42 black lawmakers, two are committed to voting "yes."
"This is truly a momentous occasion in which the outcome is up for grabs," says Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. He notes the "high-wire act" for President Obama as he returned Friday from his European trip. "The urgency you saw with the president hustling back to the States, the national address he'll give - all that is a signal of the urgency and perhaps the growing sense of foreboding in the White House."
A separate Washington Post count of congressional support Sunday reported different specific numbers but also found a tough road ahead for the president. In the Senate, the Post found 23 in favor, 17 opposed, 10 leaning no and 50 undecided; in the House, 25 in favor, 111 against, 116 leaning no and 181 undecided.
In the USA TODAY Network survey, journalists from USA TODAY and nearly 40 other Gannett-owned newspapers and television stations across the country reported on the views expressed by every senator and all but four members of the House, who couldn't be reached.