WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats alike warned Thursday the White House's poor handling of its Syria messaging efforts has made it increasingly difficult to fall in line, threatening to doom efforts to build congressional support.
A lack of any sort of obvious, coherent game plan for convincing the public action needs to be taken against Syria and a decision to leave congressmen in their districts to be confronted by angry voters is making it increasingly difficult for members to back President Obama.
"The calls have been overwhelmingly against. We should have been called back immediately, there should have been a national address, New Jersey Republican Frank LoBiondo said Thursday.
"They made the decision, they are doing the best they can, the briefers are incredibly helpful but this is very difficult when Congress is not all here together. A matter of this magnitude, we should have been here so the president can explain to us and explain to the American people," LoBiondo said. "My constituents, I've never had an issue that's been so overwhelmingly against."
Since Obama announced late last week that he was putting the question of whether to attack Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's forces — but not calling lawmakers back to town for an immediate vote — House and Senate members have seen a deluge of negative responses from the public.
The recess "has had a tremendous impact on both Democrat and Republican members no question about it," Florida Democrat Alan Grayson said. "The public is not just against it, but vehemently adamantly against this and it's having an impact on members of the House. The calls have been 100 to one against this coming into my office," the ardent opponent of attacking Syria added.
Leaving a hot button issue to linger in public is something of a rookie legislative move — leaders in both chambers will routinely keep controversial bills under wraps until after a recess to avoid opponents from picking it apart and building a public outcry against it.
But rather than bring Congress back into the protective cocoon of the Washington echo-chamber where they would be insulated from direct constituent contact, and more amenable to agreeing to strikes, the White House has left them vulnerable to public opinion.
Sen. Carl Levin, who is voting for a resolution granting Obama authority to launch strikes, acknowledged that public opinion is a force, but insisted lawmakers shouldn't allow that to dictate their decision. "Public favor was very much in favor of going into Iraq. I voted not to go into Iraq, I thought it was a mistake. The phones were ringing off the hook. If I had followed public opinion then, I would have voted to go into Iraq. But in my judgment at that time it was a mistake," the Michigan Democrat said.
Still, lawmakers said public opinion is a major factor in how lawmakers are viewing the looming vote.
"I can tell you that back home in Hawaii going to the supermarket, at the gas station, people went out of their way to come and find me and talk to me to share their concerns and feelings on this issue, their opposition to the U.S. getting involved elsewhere," Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said.
"What that tells me, people all across the country and I've heard the same thing from many of my colleagues, people all across the country are paying attention to this conversation and have some pretty deeply held feelings on this and they are engaged."
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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