Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, working to persuade skeptical lawmakers to endorse a U.S. military intervention in civil war-wracked Syria, hosted two leading Capitol Hill foreign policy hawks for talks and directed his national security team to testify before Congress in a determined effort to sell his plan for limited missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
After changing course and deciding to seek congressional approval for military action, Obama is confronted with one of his most difficult foreign policy tests and faces a Congress divided over the unavoidably tough vote-of-conscience on overseas conflict rather than the more customary partisan fights over domestic policy.
Lawmakers from both parties have expressed an array of views -- from opposition to any military intervention to a desire for even more robust action than that envisioned by the president.
Sen. John McCain, Obama's White House opponent in 2008, was joined at the White House meeting Monday afternoon by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Graham, like McCain, has argued that Obama must not only punish the Syrian regime with surgical missile strikes but must seek to change the course of the civil war and oust President Bashar Assad from power.
On Tuesday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify publicly before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Earlier Tuesday, other members of the administration's national security and intelligence teams were to hold a classified, closed-door briefing for all members of Congress. A similar session was held Sunday and more will be held Thursday and Friday.
Kerry will also testify Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Kerry and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper will hold a classified briefing Wednesday with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Members of the House Democratic caucus participated in an unclassified conference call Monday with Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, Kerry, Hagel, Clapper and Dempsey.
Obama has said he wants limited military action to respond to an attack in the Damascus suburbs last month that the U.S. says included sarin gas and killed at least 1,429 civilians, more than 400 of whom were children.
McCain and Graham, both Republicans, represent the most aggressive faction in Congress and have called on Obama to launch more comprehensive strikes with an aim of destroying President Bashar Assad's air power, his military command and control, Syria's ballistic missiles, and other military targets while at the same time increasing training and arming of opposition forces.
On the other side of the spectrum, some Republican and Democratic lawmakers don't want to see military action at all.
"I think it's very early for a lot of people and I think people are skeptical because they're hearing questions at home and they are surprised that the president decided to come to Congress," said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations committee. Engel, appearing on CNN, says he supports Obama's position but said the president has to make his case to Congress.
The White House is engaging in what officials call a "flood the zone" persuasion strategy with Congress, arguing that failure to act against Assad would weaken any deterrence against the use of chemical weapons and could embolden not only Assad but also Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Obama's turnabout decision to seek congressional authority on Syria sets the stage for the biggest foreign policy vote in Congress since the Iraq war.
On Sunday, Kerry said the U.S. received new physical evidence in the form of blood and hair samples that shows sarin gas was used in the Aug. 21 attack. Kerry said the U.S. must respond with its credibility on the line.
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