White House's full-court press on Syria grows

WASHINGTON - In advance of a national address Tuesday by the president, the White House ramped up its efforts Monday to convince Congress and the American people that an air strike on Syria is a necessary response to the Middle Eastern country's poison gas attack that killed 1,400.

But fresh polls and head counts of lawmakers showed opposition remains strong, even as a Russian offer to broker a deal in which Syria would surrender its chemical weapons added another layer of complexity to the biggest crisis of President Barack Obama's tenure.

Here's a question-and-answer look at some of the latest developments:

Q. How is the president preparing the country for making his case to retaliate against Syria?

A. The White House's press office has initiated a full-court press, making high-ranking national security officials available for on the record briefings to local television stations and regional newspaper reporters based in Washington, while the president himself agreed to sit down with six major networks on Monday to make his pitch.

The ongoing charm offensive is designed to rally the country behind what appears to be an increasingly unpopular position as an Associated Press poll Monday showed a majority of American opposed to a strike against Syrian targets.

Q. What kind of opposition has emerged to influence lawmakers?

A. The Capitol switchboard is overwhelmed with the volume of calls Congress is receiving with what are evidently mostly negative takes on the president’s request for authorization.

Meanwhile, self-described progressive groups, such as MoveOn.org, USAction and the Win Without War coalition have organized more than 160 Monday night candlelight vigils around the country to urge lawmakers to vote no on the authorization resolution.

Q. What kind of a head count, for and against, is the White House looking at on the eve of the president’s nationally televised address?

A. The Hill newspaper whip count  indicates that 26 senators are likely to support the president and 20 are likely not to, while 54 remain on the fence, indicating Obama may get Senate approval.

In the House, 144 (including 109 Republicans) have indicated they’re likely to vote against him while only 31 are counted in the “yes or leaning yes” column, including just 21 Democrats. Ninety-two members of the House are either undecided or have made their intentions unclear. The Washington Post’s whip count showed 226 “no-leaning no” votes among House members. If that’s accurate and remains true, the resolution would fail. On Monday, Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said he plans to vote against the measure, leaving Tennessee with a split in the Senate since fellow GOP Sen. Bob Corker favors the resolution.

Q. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings last week and then voted to authorize a strike. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday that the full Senate will vote on it Wednesday. What has the House done in the run-up to an authorization vote?

A. Just back in town Monday after a five-week hiatus, the House Homeland Security Committee scheduled a hasty hearing for Tuesday morning with an underwhelming witness list: a former Connecticut congressman, a retired Army general, the senior fellow from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and a political scientist from nearby George Washington University.

Q. How is the United States likely to respond to Monday’s suggestion by the Russian foreign minister to broker a deal in which Syria surrenders its chemical weapons to international control?

A. Initial White House and State Department reaction was to treat the proposal as a stalling tactic on Syria’s part. State Department spokesman Marie Harf said it would be examined with “serious skepticism” since Syria has in the past refused to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile.

Q. How is Syria responding to the talk of a bombing raid?

A. Syrian President Bashar al Assad agreed to talk to CBS’s Charlie Rose in an interview broadcast Monday morning. Among Assad’s ominous observations: “If you strike somewhere, you have to expect the repercussions somewhere else in different forms.”

(Bartholomew Sullivan is a Washington correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. Reach him atsullivanb@shns.com and on Twitter: #sullivanshns. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)