President Obama, traveling in Russia, struggled to make his case to skeptical foreign leaders for military strikes in Syria, while his administration faced growing opposition from Congress back home, where head counts Thursday showed his war plan in danger of being defeated.
Senators said they will end their summer recess Friday, a day earlier than planned, to officially start floor debate on a resolution granting Mr. Obama permission to attack Syria.
The administration continued closed-door briefings on Capitol Hill but appeared to be making little headway with lawmakers, who emerged to say that Mr. Obama and his aides have argued convincingly that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, but have not been able to explain what key national security interest is at stake or how the U.S. can avoid a deeper entanglement once it strikes.
“This is a tragedy that the international community must be fully engaged in, and we must pursue all options to determine what other actions can be taken to stop the bloodshed and pursue peace,” Rep. Randy Hultgren, Illinois Republican, said in a statement after he attended a classified briefing. “But we cannot commit our military forces when there seems to be no clear objective or path to ending our involvement.”
It’s not just in Congress where the case is going poorly. Polls show strong opposition to strikes among voters.
In an effort to bolster its case, the White House has tapped Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to deliver a speech in Washington on Friday to argue for strikes and to try to win over more international support.
Working the other side is Russia, who is hosting the Group of 20 nations summit, which Mr. Obama is attending.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top aides cast doubt on whether Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime used chemical weapons and have asked congressional leaders for the chance to meet with lawmakers in Washington to present their case on the matter. Those requests have been rejected.
In St. Petersburg, Mr. Obama shared a brief, icy handshake with Mr. Putin but made no headway on his quest to have the Russian president drop his objections to a U.N. resolution approving military force.
“Thus far, we have not seen any evidence that Russia is taking a different approach towards the Syrian issue at the U.N. Security Council,” said Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “Were they to do so, of course it’s our preference always to work through the U.N. Security Council on these issues, but we haven’t seen any change in the Russian position at the U.N. … Given the current environment and given their relationship with Assad, we’re skeptical that that change is forthcoming.”
In Washington, other administration officials continued to lobby lawmakers to win authorization to use military force.
Mr. Obama canceled a trip to California next week to continue pushing the measure, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden scrubbed a speech at the University of Central Florida on Thursday, presumably to continue working with leaders on Capitol Hill.
The president also is considering an address to the nation.
The White House appeared to be making headway Wednesday when House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, announced their support and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution on a 10-7 vote.
But momentum stalled Thursday as more members emerged from classified briefings to say they concluded that an assault on Syria is a bad idea.