By Bill Lambrecht
President Barack Obama has rare backing from top GOP House leaders, but that sentiment isn't trickling down to the Republican rank-and-file when it comes to striking Syria.
Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, said she has received hundreds of emails and phone calls questioning the wisdom of more American involvement in the Middle East.
Wagner was among Republicans in the St. Louis region uniformly opposed to the president's request to Congress to authorize military action in Syria.
"I do not believe at this point that the president or his administration has made a case to Congress or, more importantly, the American people for military action in Syria," she said in an interview.
Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said he worried that the United States is getting "mired in another mess" in a troubled region.
"I'm not sure we can do this effectively," Luetkemeyer said in an interview. "This (Syria) is not a rogue nation; this is not a nation like Afghanistan with warlords. They have a modern-equipped military and would be a very formidable foe for us to try and mess with."
In the last week of summer recess, members of Congress listened to appeals from the White House and nudges from their leaders on the imperative of a military strike in response to the Syrian regime's alleged use of chemical weapons during that nation's civil strife.
The votes in Congress pose a difficult choice for lawmakers, given the Obama administration's lack of public backing.
A Pew Research Center poll published Tuesday showed that the White House has the support of just 29 percent of the public on military airstrikes in Syria. The survey found 48 percent opposing, with the remaining respondents offering no opinion on a matter that hasn't fully registered with the public.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., was part of a minority in Congress offering support for the president.
Kirk said in a statement that while he opposes "boots on the ground" in Syria, he would support "a narrow authorization for a missile strike targeting those responsible for using chemical weapons and deterring future use of such weapons."
But even some of the president's key backers declined to offer public support.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, who spent her 60th birthday in July traveling with Obama on Air Force One, declined to signal how she'll vote -- even though she's likely to be in the president's corner.
McCaskill said Obama's decision to consult Congress was "the right course of action."
"A dictator's illegal and brutal murder of innocent civilians with chemical weapons has clear implications for our national security and for the safety of our allies," she added. "But we must avoid becoming entangled in another long, costly military campaign."
Likewise, Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said through a spokesman that he had not reached a decision "because I want to examine the evidence further and allow the full congressional debate to go forward."
Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, felt so strongly about the potential consequences of U.S. military action in Syria that he scrapped his Labor Day weekend plans and flew back to Washington for a classified briefing from Obama administration officials.
Even so, Enyart remains "very much in the undecided column," as he put it, about supporting the president's request of Congress to authorize military action against Syria.
"There are so many unknown variables in this complex equation that it's a difficult decision to make," Enyart said in an interview.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., also offered no indication on how he'll vote. Over the weekend, he called the president's decision to consult Congress "an astonishing change of course. While congressional approval is the best course of action and the right thing to do, it would have been the right course of action months ago."
In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., recalled a newspaper photo of youthful victims of the gas attack that he said is "riveted in my mind, as a father and grandfather."
Durbin told Secretary of State John Kerry that he wants a "narrowly drawn" resolution authorizing a strike.
Kerry responded by saying "there's no hidden agenda, no subterfuge ... There's one objective and that objective is to make sure we live up to obligations of upholding the norm with respect to international behavior on the use of chemical weapons."
The vote in the GOP-held House likely will be closer than the Senate despite the assertion Tuesday by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that he supported the president.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, said Obama's request for warmaking authorization was the third he has considered since becoming a House member in 1997. He supported President George W. Bush's campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq but said he wasn't convinced that military action in Syria is warranted.
"A strike, although "limited,' could very well be the spark for the tinder that engages the United States in another drawn-out campaign in the Middle East," Shimkus said in a statement.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said he regards the request for authority as too broadly written and worries that the debate will delay action on the farm bill and other key domestic matters.
"What I'm suggesting here is that the president actually go out and lay out a compelling case. He doesn't need to just convince members of Congress, he needs to convince the American people why it is important," Davis said in an interview.
Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, said in a statement that he has "serious concerns about any military involvement in Syria because the situation has no clear national securities connections to the United States, and victory of any proposed military action has not been defined."