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President Barack Obama wins key support for Syria strike, but Washington still divided

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday continued an all-out campaign to win support for a military strike against Syria and gained a key ally in House Speaker John Boehner, who declared after a meeting that the use of chemical weapons "has to be responded to."

Boehner's No. 2, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, also backed Obama, providing optimism for an administration that has consistently run into opposition from the GOP-led House.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi added support as well and could bridge the gap with liberal members. After meeting with Obama at the White House, she sent a letter to Democrats that called for action, writing, "The evidence of these attacks is clear, convincing, and devastating."

But those signs did not erase general uncertainty in Washington, where rank-and-file members return next week, many still opposed or undecided on how they would vote on a resolution supporting use of force.

A new use-of-force resolution was drafted Tuesday evening that sets a 60-day deadline, with one 30-day extension possible, for the president to launch military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. The proposal, from Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would also bar the involvement of U.S. ground forces in Syria. The committee could vote on the resolution as early as today.

Earlier Tuesday, the White House dispatched top administration officials to testify before the Foreign Relations Committee. Secretary of State John Kerry appealed on moral grounds, telling lawmakers that the world is watching.

"They want to know if America will rise to this moment and make a difference," Kerry said, warning lawmakers that Iran and North Korea hope that "ambivalence carries the day."

Kerry invoked lingering bitterness over the war in Iraq, insisting that evidence Assad's regime used chemical weapons has been "scrubbed and rescrubbed."

"This is not the time for armchair isolationism," Kerry said, alluding to a budding coalition of liberals and libertarian-minded Republicans who have voiced opposition on grounds the United States cannot play the world's police.

The hearing was interrupted several times by members of the antiwar group Code Pink. Kerry addressed them at one point, saying he felt similarly as a young man returning from Vietnam and testifying against the war. "I would just say that is exactly why it is so important that we are all here having this debate, talking about these things," he said.

The key details about chemical weapons will not be aired in public; the committee will get a closed briefing today.

Lawmakers had myriad questions about the extent of the proposed military action and what it could mean in the volatile Middle East. "What happens if this thing gets away from us?" asked Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., embodied the mixed feelings. He criticized Obama for not engaging with the opposition when the conflict took root in 2011 and said he was "a bit skeptical" what a limited strike could accomplish. He also said the situation in Syria is "clearly tied" to U.S. national security interests. In an interview with Fox News, Rubio declined to say how he will vote.

"There are troubling questions that need to be answered," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., contending that the resolution offered by the White House is too open-ended.

The drama has grown since Obama changed course Saturday and said he would seek congressional approval amid sagging support from the nation's traditional allies, chiefly Britain.

Lawmakers are on summer recess, but in recent days they have been summoned to the phone for briefings or traveled back to Washington, suddenly pondering one of the toughest votes they'll ever make.

Traditional foreign policy hawks are being countered by a rising coalition of noninterventionists who want to focus more on concerns at home.

Democrats are divided, too, caught up in an alliance with Obama but also a deep distrust of more military action. The dynamic is captured by Florida Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who is backing Obama, and Alan Grayson of Orlando, who is trying to rally lawmakers in opposition.

"If the vote were held today, we'd win," Grayson said. "The notion we can snap our fingers and end the world's problems is one that is killing this country and driving us to bankruptcy. We have to get over it."

Grayson is collecting signatures on a website and plans to give them to lawmakers as a reminder of public opposition. A poll by the Washington Post and ABC News released Tuesday showed nearly 6 in 10 Americans disapprove of missile strikes even if chemical weapons were used in a recent attack.

Wasserman Schultz, who is one of Obama's top backers as head of the Democratic National Committee, acknowledged public unease but suggested lawmakers would be able to make the case as evidence became clearer.

"We are all weary of war," she said, echoing Obama's words Tuesday morning: "This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan.

"The moral leadership of the U.S. requires a response that is certain and severe, that will be a deterrent, and will make Assad think more than twice about whether he ever does that again."

Grayson said he does not question Wasserman Schultz's reasoning. "My problem with her argument is it's just not going to end. No one is saying this (proposed strike) is going to lead to Assad's downfall. . . . All this is, is a slap on the wrist."

Full votes in the House and Senate are not expected until next week.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.

President Barack Obama wins key support for Syria strike, but Washington still divided 09/03/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 7:30am]

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