WASHINGTON — As Congress edges toward a critical vote on Syria, Maine’s representatives to Capitol Hill are hearing from large numbers of constituents staunchly opposed to U.S. military strikes against a Syrian government accused of gassing its own people.
The lopsided feedback — more than 1,100 opposed to military strikes versus 21 supportive, according to one office — illustrates the disconnect between public opinion and the Obama administration’s hard-line position on Syria. That disconnect increases the pressure on lawmakers struggling over whether U.S. military involvement will help or hurt the situation in an already unstable region.
“If I decide to vote in a way that’s inconsistent with those who contacted my office, I owe them an explanation,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who estimated that about 90 percent of the more than 1,000 calls and emails his office has received opposed military action.
“In all my years of public service, this is just about the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to deal with,” King told reporters Wednesday evening in Maine after returning from two days of briefings and hearings in Washington.
The office of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, offered a ballpark estimate of 800 contacts on the Syria issue, with most opposed to military action.
Figures for the office of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, were so lopsided they were almost one-sided: 1,134 calls, emails and faxes opposed to the use of military force in Syria, compared to just 21 in favor of U.S. intervention, as of Wednesday afternoon.
“Every one of the people I have talked to said in the plainest words, ‘Please don’t get involved,’” said Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch, who has helped answer calls in the Maine offices.
Representatives for Republican Sen. Susan Collins did not provide numbers on Wednesday but said most of those who have contacted her offices were opposed to military action.
Delegation staffers said most of those contacting their offices appear to be acting independently.
However, there are also clear signs — such as identically worded messages — that groups on either side of the issue are helping organize some of the feedback, even if those groups do not always identify themselves.
“We are seeing some organized effort around this,” said Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for King.
National polls suggest that Americans are leery of getting further involved in Syria. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found 58 percent of respondents were opposed to military action, while 48 percent of those participating in a Pew Research Center poll opposed military intervention.
In Washington, however, the Obama administration’s push to gain congressional support took a first step forward on Wednesday when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10–7 in support of a resolution authorizing limited use of military force. Republicans and Democrats were on both sides of the issue, reflecting schisms within both parties on the issue.
All members of Congress are privy to some classified information, but lawmakers serving on either chamber’s intelligence committees as well as some other panels have direct access to more sensitive documents and to top intelligence officials.
Both Collins and King serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee and have been, therefore, much more heavily involved in the Syria issue than either Pingree or Michaud.
Neither has staked out a position to date, but both probably are regarded as key votes, given their committee assignments. King also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Collins on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
Collins spent most of the day inside the highly secured Intelligence Committee room and met personally with the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, as well as representatives from the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She also participated in Intelligence Committee briefing on Tuesday and plans to attend another on Thursday.
“I have also benefited from many conversations with my constituents,” Collins said in a statement. “At this point, I have not reached a decision on how I will vote on this serious matter. I continue to have many questions about the consequences of military action.”King participated in three classified briefings in Washington and attended Tuesday’s spirited Senate Foreign Relations Committee public hearing on Syria as a spectator, albeit one with a vote on the Senate floor.
“I am genuinely undecided on this,” King said in an interview before flying back to Maine. “I am listening and trying to learn as much as I can.”
In July, King returned from a fact-finding trip to two of Syria’s neighbor countries — Jordan and Turkey — more resolute that the U.S. should play a larger role in ending the Syrian conflict. King and Sen. Carl Levin — the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee — said at the time that the U.S. should work with partner nations to exert additional “military pressure” on the Syrian government without committing ground forces.
The pair also urged the Obama administration to continue arming “properly vetted” rebel forces and to consider targeted military strikes. On Wednesday, King said language calling on the administration to “consider” targeted strikes was as far as he would go at the time and that he was still weighing the pros and cons of such action.
“There are no good options, there are no easy answers and there is risk” with any response,” King said.
Maine’s two House members said they plan to attend briefings on Syria after returning to Washington next week. Pingree also participated in a briefing with top administration officials that was held via telephone last weekend.
Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.
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