President Obama lobbying lawmakers on Syria from overseas

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 5 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to statements during a round table meeting at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. The threat of missiles over the Mediterranean is weighing on world leaders meeting on the shores of the Baltic this week, and eclipsing economic battles that usually dominate when the G-20 world economies meet. (AP Photo/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)

Sergei Karpukhin, AP

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pressed skeptical lawmakers to give him the authority to use U.S. military force against Syria during his overseas trip while the administration struggled to rally international support for intervention in an intractable civil war.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Thursday that Obama was making calls to members of Congress while he attends an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The president spoke to a bipartisan group of five lawmakers on Wednesday.

"He is going to be doing outreach on the Hill," Rhodes said of the president's lobbying during the two-day summit in Russia.

The Obama administration cleared one obstacle on Wednesday when a deeply divided Senate panel approved a resolution authorizing military force, but a significant number of senators remain unconvinced and opposition is growing in the House.

Two Republican senators announced on Thursday that they would vote against any military action. Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Mike Lee of Utah, members of the Armed Services Committee, expressed their opposition just 24 hours after participating in briefings with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Lee said in a statement that the risks of the president's plan outweigh the gains, while Vitter said he was concerned "that getting involved in Syria, after Iraq and Afghanistan, would make mustering our resolve to stop a nuclear Iran impossible."

The administration continued its full-scale sales job on Thursday, holding another round of closed-door meetings for lawmakers about its intelligence on Syria.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said officials showed a DVD on chemical weapons with "what pinpointed eyes mean, what the convulsions mean" when nerve agents affect people. She said all senators would receive a copy.

"It's horrendous," Feinstein said.

The administration has focused on influencing lawmakers who will vote, but public opinion polls show little desire for military intervention in Syria. Feinstein acknowledged the lack of popular support.

"It weighs on me," she said. "There's no question: What's coming in is overwhelmingly negative."

The information has been provided to members of Congress. The public has had no access, a point that Feinstein recognized.

"But you see, then they don't know what I know. They haven't heard what I've heard," she said.

Days from a Senate vote, an Associated Press survey of senators found 34 supporting or leaning toward military action, 26 opposed or leaning against and 40 undecided.

Obama has called for military action after the administration blamed Assad for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that it says killed more than 1,400 civilians, including at least 400 children. Other casualty estimates are lower, and the Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels fighting to topple the government were to blame.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, questioned the necessity of U.S. military action as she entered the classified hearing.

"This is not a choice between doing nothing and doing a military strike," she said.

Collins appeared undecided but insisted there were other ways to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad short of an American intervention. She said the Obama administration still hasn't presented a clear strategy and that she had "many questions with the wisdom of the president's request."

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said it was up to the administration to present members with the necessary information. "I think if they do, everybody will agree," he said.

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