Watch CBSN Live

Congress struggling with how to vote on Syria attack

If you're not sure whether Congress should vote to authorize U.S. military engagement in Syria, you're in good company: Many of the lawmakers charged with voting on the matter don't seem to know, either.

These wavering legislators have heard the president's call for action, spurred by evidence that the Syrian government under President Bashar Assad killed almost 1,500 civilians in an August 21 chemical weapon attack. They've been briefed on the relevant intelligence, and they've endured a berating from voters back home who are largely opposed to the proposed military strike. Yet even after all of that, ahead of a series of crucial votes in the coming days, many still say they need to hear more before they can make up their mind.

Constituents' calls and emails pressure lawmakers on Syria

Given how unpopular the proposed action in Syria is among the American public, the reluctance of many in Congress to stake out a firm position should not be surprising. Only 29 percent of respondents voiced support for the use of force in a Pew poll released Wednesday, while 48 percent were opposed. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday found a similar divide: 59 percent of respondents opposed a strike, including clear majorities in both parties, and only 36 percent favored a strike.

Ultimately, though, lawmakers have to cast a vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid formally filed the resolution authorizing the use of force on Friday, queuing up a likely vote next week on the resolution's final passage. As decision time approaches, the risk wavering congressmen face is that their caution becomes less Goldilocks and more Hamlet - that constituents will begin to see their middle-of-the-road prudence as an exercise in tortured indecision.

Many undecided lawmakers have cited the proposal's deep unpopularity among the American public as an argument against it. Even lawmakers who favor striking Syria admit they're doing so despite the intense opposition of their constituents.

"It's been overwhelmingly negative," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., of the public reaction to his support for the president's proposal, according to the Washington Post. "It's unpopular. I certainly listen. I like to believe the resolution I drafted reflects some of the concerns: limited time frame, no boots on the ground."

Politics aside, many undecided members have more instrumental concerns about the proposed action in Syria. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she remains "firmly undecided" ahead of a classified intelligence briefing on Thursday.

Sen. Collins "firmly undecided" on Syria strike
The politics of Congress' Syria votes
Syria strike "will indeed be a war," Paul says

She wondered what happens if Assad decides to use chemical weapons again. "Do we strike again?" she asked. "That's the definition of further entanglement."

At the same time, she worried that Congress' failure to authorize the president's call for the use of force could damage America's credibility in the eyes of friend and foe alike. "That is an argument on the other side that I'm weighing carefully," she said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., voiced concern about "steps B, C, and D" if the U.S. decides to strike. According to WKRN, Alexander said on Wednesday that he "would not vote for" the resolution until he's told more about the potential consequences.

"Clearly we are disgusted by the use of poison gas by Assad against his own people," he said, "but I want to explore what all the options are, some may be military, some may not be military."

One fence-sitter to watch carefully: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whose public comments on the matter have been limited to a statement saying Congress would "benefit from knowing more" about what the president plans for Syria.

McConnell is the only major congressional leader who has yet to stake out a firm position on the use of force: House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have all signaled their support.

His indecision may be informed, in part, by a tough 2014 reelection battle. McConnell's home state colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has declared his staunch opposition to the use of force in Syria. Paul's backing is seen as crucial to McConnell's effort to fend off a conservative primary challenger, and McConnell may be loath to alienate the conservative activists who propelled Paul to a resounding win in the 2010 Kentucky Senate race.

Paul, who voted on Wednesday against a Senate Foreign Relations Committee resolution authorizing the use of force, has summarized the feelings of many legislators who oppose president's call for action in Syria.

"The president has failed to demonstrate a compelling American national interest in the Syrian civil war," Paul explained in a statement following his vote. "I frankly think that bombing Syria increases the likelihood of additional gas attacks, may increase attacks on Israel and turkey, may increase civilian deaths, may increase instability in the Middle East and may draw Russia and Iran further into this civil war."

Paul's fear - that American action could lead to more instability in the region, not less - was echoed by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who announced on Thursday that he would vote against the authorization of the use of force.

"As horrible as events in Syria are, they do not pose a direct threat to the United States or our allies," Vitter said in a statement. "U.S. military action could spark a broader war and/or entangle us in Syria's protracted civil war."

Feinstein: U.S. looks like "paper tiger" without Syria response
McCain: Failure to act in Syria gives "green light" to Iran, N. Korea
Graham: Senate "too close to call" on Syria vote

Some legislators who favor a strike, however, have directly rebutted the fear that U.S. military action in Syria would further destabilize the region. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., warned that the resolution's failure would undercut the president and embolden America's enemies. "Once the administration made this call," she said, "I think there is a real need for us to back it up, or America becomes a paper tiger."

A "no" vote would say to Iran, "Let's proceed and develop a bomb, a warhead, because they're not going to do anything when push comes to shove," she explained. "And to North Korea, which I view as one of the most unstable regimes on earth, it says to them, 'You know, we have thousands of American soldiers in South Korea, and have had for a long time - don't worry, they're not going to do anything.'"

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who voted in committee to authorize the use of force and has long pushed for a more active American role in Syria, voiced a similar concern during a town hall meeting on Thursday.

"Unless we act, in my view, in some fashion, then that would not only give [Assad] a green light to use chemical weapons again, but also the Iranians who are building nuclear weapons, the North Koreans and others, would also, I think, view this as a green light," he warned.

Despite McCain's case, many at the town hall remained skeptical or downright hostile, forecasting a long road ahead for lawmakers who hope to persuade the American public that striking Syria is the right thing to do.

McCain's compatriot, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said he will support military action, but he pushed the president to make a more forceful case for intervention on Thursday.

"I think if the vote right now were taken, it would be too close to call in the Senate and would surely lose in the House," he said. "I've got no problem with any member of Congress who says they'll vote no or they don't know what they'll do yet because the president has failed to make the case to the American people."

"Until he can do that more effectively, it's going to be hard for Congress to rally to his side," Graham added.

Ultimately, apart from considerations about damaged U.S. credibility, the congressional vote to authorize military action in Syria could be much ado about nothing. The president, backed by his national security team, has insisted he has the right to launch a strike regardless of whether or not Congress approves.

It's a message unlikely to push wavering lawmakers to make up their minds any sooner: The vote on Syria could be among the most consequential of their careers, but it could also be entirely inconsequential to the president's ultimate decision.

View CBS News In