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Analysis: Obama growing isolated on Syria as support wanes

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses during a news conference at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg September 6, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses during a news conference at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg September 6, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Fred Barbash

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - White House efforts to convince the U.S. Congress to back military action against Syria are not only failing, they seem to be stiffening the opposition.

That was the assessment on Sunday, not of an opponent but of an early and ardent Republican supporter of Obama's plan for attacking Syria, the influential Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers.

Rogers told CBS's "Face the Nation" the White House had made a "confusing mess" of the Syria issue. Now, he said, "I'm skeptical myself."

Congress will be in session on Monday for the first time since the August recess. Debate on Syria could begin in the full Senate this week, with voting as early as Wednesday. The House of Representatives could take up the issue later this week or next.

Obama is expected to spend the next several days in personal meetings with members.

Some Democratic opponents of a military strike, meanwhile, were looking for a way to spare Obama's administration the effects of a "no" vote.

Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts suggested that the president withdraw his request before it is defeated, saying on CNN's "State of the Union" that there was insufficient support for it in Congress.

There are no signs that Obama is considering that, but speculation about the possibility that the administration might delay a vote surfaced on Sunday when Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Paris after meeting Arab foreign ministers, did not rule out returning to the United Nations Security Council to secure a Syria resolution.

A U.S. official who asked not to be named later squelched that speculation: "We have always supported working through the U.N. but have been clear there is not a path forward there."

Obama is scheduled to address the American public on television on Tuesday, but even his political allies fear that his acknowledged power as an orator will be tested, given that polls show a majority of Americans opposed to his plan for military action.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough suggested that the speech will repeat points Obama has already made several times.

"What he'll tell the country is what this is, which is a targeted, limited, consequential" use of military force, McDonough said during a round of appearances on Sunday TV shows.

"He'll also tell the country what this is not. This is not Iraq. This is not Afghanistan. This is not an extended air campaign like Libya."

'FLOOD THE ZONE' IS NOT WORKING

Most opponents of the proposed U.S. military strike do not contest the administration's view that the Syrian government gassed its own people on August 21. Their expressed concerns focus instead on the effectiveness and potential unintended consequences of a U.S. military response.

Only about a quarter of the Senate's 100 members and fewer than 25 members of the 435-seat House have been willing to go on record in support of Obama's request, according to a tally by the Washington Post. Seventeen senators and 111 House members are on record against.

Leaders of both parties have characterized Syria as a "conscience vote," not subject to the usual pressure for party discipline. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for example, has not made a personal pitch for votes in any of the five "Dear Colleague" letters she has sent her fellow Democrats.

The White House plans to step up what it has called a "flood the zone" lobbying effort this week, with briefings on Capitol Hill by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

The influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee will deploy hundreds of activists to lobby Congress in support of Obama's plan. However, similarly intense lobbying by the White House last week proved unsuccessful.

Rogers, among others, faults Obama for not starting months ago to build congressional and public support on Syria.

"They don't have strong relationships in Congress today - that's a huge problem for them," said Rogers. "I think it's very clear he's lost support in the last week."

As for the lack of public support, Rogers added: "You have a reluctant commander in chief, first of all, who's trying to come to the American people and say, 'I'm going to do something, but I'm not going to do a lot.' They're not sure exactly what we're trying to do."

Another Republican supporter, Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, said on ABC's "This Week" that he had "reached out to the White House and said, 'hey we support the strike on Syria, we're going to help you round up support if you need it.' I haven't heard back from the White House yet."

(This story has been corrected to fix spelling of Denis in 11th paragraph)

(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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