WASHINGTON—House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday said he would support President Obama’s call for action in Syria, providing the White House with crucial backing as key members of Congress appear to be coalescing around a plan to support limited military strikes on Syria.
Boehner’s announcement came after a meeting with Obama at the White House with top congressional leaders, and it was followed by several others saying they, too, support Obama’s plan.
“This is something that the United States as a country needs to do,” Boehner said. “I’m going to support the president’s call for action; I believe my colleagues should support this call for action.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also emerged from the meeting saying she would back Obama. The House’s second-ranking Republican, Eric Cantor of Virginia, also released a statement supporting the president.
In the leadup to votes, expected next week, the White House has been engaged in an intense lobbying campaign, offering classified briefings and explaining Obama’s rationale for wanting to punish the Syrian regime for allegedly using chemical weapons on its own population. Secretary of State John Kerryand Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel were scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
Obama, who summoned top House and Senate lawmakers to the White House on Tuesday morning, opened the meeting up by emphasizing that his plan would be limited and would involve air strikes – not ground troops.
“This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan,” he said. “This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms, that there are consequences.”
While gaining support from Boehner and Pelosi provides momentum, it does not make the vote a certainty, particularly in a volatile House of Representatives where even routine matters no longer pass. Boehner and Pelosi also plan to make the topic a so-called “vote of conscience,” meaning they won’t push their members to vote one particular way.
Among those who are unconvinced are some Tea Party-backed Republicans, who tend to have a more isolationist view of foreign policy that believes the United States should keep out of foreign conflicts, and some liberal Democrats who are reluctant to use military force until all other options have failed.
Many in the all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation said they remain skeptical of the plan.
Representative Michael E. Capuano, a liberal Somerville Democrat, said Tuesday that if the vote were held today, he would oppose it. But he said he is willing to hear out Obama and Kerry.
“I won’t make up my mind until the vote comes,” he said. Capuano, who flew to Washington for a closed door briefing on Sunday, said he agreed Syria had used chemical weapons and should be held accountable, but that’s not the question: “Is this the best and most appropriate way to hold him accountable?” he said, adding that he has “strong and very serious reservations” about that question.
Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, said her office has received many calls from constituents opposed to military action and that others broached the topic during a parade in Marlborough on Labor Day. She said she has yet to make up her mind as she prepares for a classified briefing on Thursday.
“Generally speaking, the calls we’re getting are expressing the same concerns I have,” she said. “I’ve got really serious concerns about military action. I think whatever we do has to be carefully weighed.”
“We’ve got to have a crystal clear plan with very precise goals,” she continued. “I’m very concerned that for every action we take, there is a reaction, and have we thought through what we do in the face of these reactions?”
Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who recently visited Syria and has been meeting with White House officials, said the administration needs to make the case “for Syria writ large and why this is important to our national interest.”
But he said members of congress are aware of the stakes in backing the President’s vow to punish Syria for using chemical weapons.
“I think they understand the importance and consequences in the region and having said ‘This is a red line,’” he said.
Idaho Senator James E. Risch, a Republican, said the administration has yet to fully explain the potential consequences.
“I keep hearing that the objective is ‘Well we have to do something.’ Well that’s not good enough,” he said.
Obama’s decision on Saturday to seek congressional approval for the military strikes injected a new uncertainty into how – and whether—the United States will respond to the use of chemical weapons. The White House organized conference calls and classified briefings over the holiday weekend, and has been meeting with lawmakers in recent days.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, emerged from meetings on Monday saying they support Obama.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said after the Tuesday morning meeting that she supports Obama’s call for an authorization to use military force.
“The United States for our entire history has stood up for democracy and freedom around the world,” Boehner said. “These weapons have to be responded to. Only the United States has the capacity and the capability to stop Assad or warn others around the world that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. I appreciate the president reaching out to me and my colleagues in Congress over the past few weeks.”
Pelosi said that while she thinks the American people need to hear more about the intelligence that supports the action, she believes “We must respond.”
Pelosi recounted a discussion she had on Monday with her 5-year-old grandson.
“He said to me…‘Yes war with Syria? Or no war with Syria?’” Pelosi recounted.
She asked what he thought, and he said he didn’t want war. She said she generally agrees with that, but they’ve killed hundreds of children.
“He said, five years old, were these children in the United States?” she said. “And I said, `No, but they’re children wherever they are.’ ”
She did not say whether she convinced her grandson. But she did said, “I don’t think Congress will reject.” Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.