Obama gets no early takers on Syria among Washington state lawmakers

Rob HotakainenMcClatchy Washington Bureau

Headed into the biggest vote of the year on Capitol Hill, Washington state’s congressional delegation is in no rush to line up behind President Barack Obama in his bid to use military force in Syria.

An informal survey of the lawmakers showed an unusual display of unity among the 12-member delegation: They’re all undecided.

And so far, only one, Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott, the longest-serving member of the state’s delegation, is leaning toward voting no.

The vote comes at a difficult time for Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who said she won’t be able to resume a full-time congressional schedule until her infant daughter is released from a California hospital, where she’s being treated for a rare medical condition. But she said she’s still making arrangements to be on Capitol Hill so she won’t miss the big vote.

Her spokesperson, Drew Griffin, said Herrera Beutler is “very skeptical that going to war with Syria is in our nation’s best interest” but that she’s keeping an open mind and wants to hear more from the president in coming days.

Obama is expected to again press for military action on Tuesday when he gives a speech in advance of the vote.

Republican Rep. Dave Reichert said Obama will “need to make a case both to Congress and the American people before any final decision can be made.”

With Congress in the last days of its five-week summer break, most Washington state lawmakers have said little since Saturday, when the president first announced that he wanted authorization to punish the Syrian government for allegedly unleashing chemical weapons on its citizens.

Press aides said many of them planned to attend briefings and study intelligence reports before deciding how they’ll vote next week. And many want to hear more from voters in their districts.

Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, “is undecided and remains in constant contact with his colleagues, the administration and his constituents as the situation continues to develop,” said Shana Chandler, his spokeswoman.

Three freshmen from the state will be casting their first votes on whether to use U.S. military force.

Democratic Rep. Denny Heck said he will approach the vote “with prayerful consideration and deliberation” and will review more intelligence reports and listen to constituents before deciding.

“I believe this decision should not be made just in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer “wants to understand what success looks like before making a decision,” said his spokesman, Stephen Carter. And he said Kilmer wants to make sure that any military action doesn’t draw the U.S. into a larger conflict or add to regional instability.

And Democratic Rep. Suzan DelBene, the third freshman, is undecided but said she’s also concerned about getting the U.S. into “another long-term military operation without clearly-defined objectives.”

Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who has been the most vocal member of the delegation on Syria, called the use of chemical weapons “abhorrent” and said it must end. But she said that Congress must be “exceedingly cautious” in considering the matter because it could lead to more costly military entanglements.

“I am also eager to hear from Washington state families who have passionate and differing views on how we should proceed as a nation,” she said.

Democrat Maria Cantwell, the state’s junior senator, is “tracking the proceedings…., getting briefings and hearing from constituents” before making a decision, said Jared Leopold, her spokesman.

Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen planned to return to Washington, D.C., on Friday. And he planned to review classified reports and solicit more opinions from his constituents before deciding how to vote, said his spokesman, Bryan Thomas.

Republican Rep. Doc Hastings has been traveling this week and won’t be able to attend a briefing until next week, said his spokesman, Neal Kirby. And Hastings is “withholding judgment until that time,” Kirby said.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, part of the House GOP leadership team, is “carefully considering” the matter and wants to see the final legislative text before making a decision, said her spokeswoman, Melanie Collett.

Before returning to Capitol Hill, McDermott scheduled a “listening session” in Seattle to hear more from constituents Sunday evening.

McDermott is “certainly leaning towards opposing military action,” though he is waiting to review a report from United Nations inspectors and he also wants to see the full text of the House bill before making a final decision, said his spokesperson, Amber MacDonald.

By Rob Hotakainen
McClatchy Washington Bureau