Tags: Syria | obama | congress | syria | aides

Ex-White House Liaisons: Syria Win Was Unlikely for Obama

Monday, 16 Sep 2013 08:21 AM

By John Gizzi

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The top congressional aides for Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan tell Newsmax that it was highly unlikely that President Barack Obama would have ever secured approval from Congress for a strike against the Assad regime in Syria.

In separate interviews with Newsmax, both Charles Brain, who oversaw congressional liaison for Bill Clinton in the last year of his presidency, and Ken Duberstein, who was in charge of legislative affairs in the White House during Ronald Reagan's first term, doubted that Obama could have convinced Congress to vote his way on Syria in such a short period of time.

"On a controversial vote, a president should make personal appeals to Congress and these appeals continue and intensify as the vote approaches," Brain said. "And he must explain the situation in detail and, if needed, use classified material."

But he accepted that on most issues, the president has more time than Obama had on Syria.

Newsmax asked Brain to recall a highly controversial measure during his tenure in the Clinton White House in which the president's intense and personal lobbying of lawmakers was pivotal to its eventual triumph.

"That would be the granting of PNTR [Permanent Normal Trade Relations] with China," he replied. "And it was controversial. President Clinton brought members of Congress into the Oval Office for one-on-one meetings on this measure. He would also meet with small groups in the residence in the evening to discuss it. And he had bipartisan support."

The new trade status with China – which the Beijing government very much sought – was offered in a resolution introduced on May 15, 2000 by Republican Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. It passed the House by a vote of 237 to 197 on May 24 after intense lobbying from the White House. The bill had an easier time in the Senate and passed by 83-15 on September 19, 2000.

But, Brain added, "President Clinton had the luxury of time on this issue and President Obama did not on Syria."

Obama called for a vote from Congress on Syria on August 31 and Congress returned from summer recess September 9. The White House made it clear it wanted a fast debate and vote. But this was all postponed following the president's address to the nation September 10 and his decision to deal with the Russian initiative on Syrian chemical weapons.

Duberstein, who oversaw Reagan's efforts with Congress when it passed the historic Tax and Budget Acts of 1981, agreed with Brain that the short time involved in the proposed vote on Syrian action worked against the Obama administration.

"It was very difficult at this juncture to see a fast-forward in Congress for the White House on a positive vote on Syria," he told Newsmax.

"A president is certainly a powerful lobbyist. But the most important lobbyists are the people back home. At the time the president called on Congress for a vote on Syria, members of Congress were home and at town meetings and other events. The people there were overwhelmingly saying to them 'thumbs down on Syria.'"

Duberstein added that "this would be a tough vote for any White House, especially this White House which has had a very rocky relationship with Congress for a long time."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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