WASHINGTON — The issue of Syria has scrambled the usual political alliances that have long defined California’s members of Congress, even as President Obama and delegation leaders seek to persuade them to side with him.
Backing their party’s president, Sen. Barbara Boxer and her colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have expressed support for a limited U.S. military strike. So too has House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who, along with Boxer, is a leading liberal critic of the Iraq war. But at least 15 of the state’s 53 House members — eight Republicans and seven Democrats — oppose or are leaning against an attack.
They include Barbara Lee, a Bay Area liberal, and Dana Rohrabacher, an Orange County conservative. Only two of Pelosi’s fellow California Democrats — House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles and freshman Rep. Juan Vargas of San Diego — have expressed support for a limited attack. Some members of the delegation say they are undecided.
The new diplomatic initiative — Russia’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles under international control to stave off U.S. military action — has given all of the delegation members a pass for now on what would be a politically tough vote.
It is tough in particular for the lawmakers who report that their constituents overwhelmingly oppose a U.S. military strike. “All of my colleagues have been inundated with phone calls, and almost unanimously, people don't want us to strike Syria,” freshman Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) said during a hearing last week on Syria.
Feinstein on Wednesday expressed hope that Syria would surrender its chemical weapons, but she also sought to build support for a military strike, if necessary.
“I hope that military force will not be needed, that we will allow the time for the United Nations and the parties on the Security Council to put an agreement together, and the threat of force will be sufficient to change President Assad’s behavior,” she said in a speech the day after Obama delivered a rare prime-time address from the White House.
But in the Senate floor speech she also sought to make the case to her colleagues that Syrian President Bashar Assad's government has “repeatedly” used chemical weapons, and urged Americans to view videos of the victims that “should shock the conscience of all humanity.”
In one video, posted on the website of the Senate Intelligence Committee she chairs, Feinstein spoke about a Syrian girl in pajamas who “looked just like my daughter at that age — same hair, same pajamas, same innocence, except the little Syrian girl was lifeless.”
Feinstein said that she supports delaying a congressional vote to authorize a U.S. military strike on Syria to see whether the Russian proposal succeeds. But she told colleagues that “countries around the world will see the United States as a paper tiger when it promises to take action but fails to do so.”
Obama’s speech failed to sway some members of the California delegation.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who reported that his constituent mail and phone calls run 20-1 against a strike, said that he is “unconvinced that a U.S. attack on Syria has clear and precise objectives.”
Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro), who has expressed skepticism from the beginning about a U.S. military strike, went to the House floor Wednesday to welcome the possibility of a diplomatic solution. She added that a limited strike “risks igniting a dangerously unlimited conflict.” In an interview, she added: “If this is an international norm that has been violated, then I’m not comfortable — nor are my constituents — that the United States becomes the enforcer.”
Also unswayed was Rep. David Valadao, a freshman Republican from California’s Central Valley who was among a group of House Republicans who met with Vice President Joe Biden at the White House on Tuesday.
“I do not believe the United States has justification to implement military force in Syria, as proposed legislation fails to precisely define a strategy, clearly state objectives, and does not garner widespread support from the international community,” he said.
In 2002, when members of Congress voted in advance of U.S. action in Iraq, the partisan lines were far more absolute. Of the 32 California Democrats in the House, 24 voted against giving President George W. Bush authority to use force there; the state’s 20 House Republicans voted en masse with their party’s president.
Rohrabacher, a yes vote on sending troops to Iraq, said he sees no U.S. national security interest in Syria.
Boxer, who has said that her vote against the Iraq war was her proudest moment, has said that a failure to act “gives Assad license to use these weapons again.”