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Obama and aides confront skeptical Congress on Syria strike

(Reuters) – President Barack Obama and his top aides launched a full-scale political offensive on Sunday to persuade a skeptical Congress to approve a military strike against Syria, but faced a struggle to win over lawmakers from both parties and a war-weary American public.

Obama made calls to members of the House of Representatives and Senate, with more scheduled for Monday, underscoring the task confronting the administration before it can go ahead with using force in response to a deadly chemical attack blamed on the Syrian government.

Dozens of lawmakers, some in tennis shirts or shirtsleeves, cut short their vacations and streamed into the corridors of the Capitol building for a Sunday afternoon intelligence briefing on Syria with Obama’s national security team.

When they emerged nearly three hours later, there was no immediate sign that the many skeptics in Congress had changed their minds. Many questioned the broad nature of the measure Obama is seeking, suggesting it needed to be narrowed.

“I am very concerned about taking America into another war against a country that hasn’t attacked us,” said Representative Janice Hahn, a California Democrat. On the way out of the briefing, she said the participants appeared “evenly divided” on whether to give Obama approval.

Most seemed convinced that Syria had engaged in chemical warfare. “The searing image of babies lined up dead, that’s what I can’t get out of my mind right now,” Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz said after the closed-door briefing.

But the credibility of the administration’s intelligence is turning out to be a less important issue than the nature and usefulness of the response.

Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John Kerry invoked the crimes of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein and warned of a potential threat to Israel a day after Obama delayed an imminent attack on Syrian targets until after a congressional vote.

Even as Kerry took to the airwaves touting new evidence that deadly sarin gas was used in the August 21 chemical attack near Damascus, the scope of the challenge confronting the administration became apparent.

Lawmakers questioned the effectiveness of limited strikes, the possible unintended consequence of dragging the United States into another open-ended Middle East conflict, the wisdom of acting without broader international backing to share the burden, and the war fatigue of the American public.

Polls show the public is largely opposed to U.S. military action.

While Kerry predicted Obama would win the endorsement he wants, a growing cacophony of congressional critics – ranging from liberal Democratic doves to Republican Tea Party conservatives – illustrated just how hard that will be.

“I’m not convinced that the administration’s support will resolve the issues in Syria,” Representative Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said as he left the meeting, adding he was leaning toward a “no” vote….

By Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick

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