KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Rep. Emanuel Cleaver is a loyal supporter of President Obama. He served as one of the national chairmen of his 2008 presidential campaign. His respect runs so deep, Cleaver has declared, “I will do everything in my power to help him be a success.”
But when the president calls next week and asks him to support a congressional resolution for taking military action against Syria, Cleaver said he intends to respectfully say he cannot. He knows Obama’s prestige and credibility is on the line, but Cleaver said his admiration for the president does not outweigh his own conscience on matters of war.
“You know what I keep thinking? What would I be saying and what would I be doing if George Bush was in the White House?” Cleaver told ABC News. “What’s right should be right – no matter who sleeps in the White House.”
Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat who has been deeply skeptical of a military strike against Syria, said he would listen to his constituents before deciding how he would vote next week.
At a town meeting here Thursday night, he got an earful.
For two hours, Cleaver stood at the front of a crowded room and listened to one person after another urge him to oppose military action. He heard from voters on the liberal left and the Tea Party right – a broad tapestry of the political spectrum coming together with the same message, which Stephen Platt of Kansas City summed up succinctly.
“My short answer to this is not no,” Platt said, “but hell no.”
With a vote looming next week, Cleaver is poised to be one of the House Democrats voting against the proposal to strike Syria in response to the regime’s chemical weapons attack on its own people. When asked whether the administration’s argument has been persuasive, Cleaver didn’t hesitate.
“No,” he told ABC News after the meeting. “I listened to an official from the administration yesterday [Wednesday] and while he was certainly powerful in his statements about why we should go alone, in terms of striking targets in Syria, I don’t think he said anything compelling.”
Skepticism from Democratic members of Congress like Cleaver is causing a significant challenge for the White House. Senior administration officials acknowledged today that momentum has shifted away from the president’s position. They hope it can be restored next week when he addresses the nation.
But here in Kansas City, the sentiment expressed at the town meeting suggested that the president has a difficult sales job ahead of him. One of the concerns conveyed over the two-hour meeting was how the U.S. could finance the use of military force.
“How can we afford another military action?” Platt asked.
John Rowe of Kansas City worried that a military strike against Syria would cause its allies to launch attacks against the United States.
“I don’t believe Assad’s allies – Russia, China and Iran – will sit by and allow us to bomb them without some retaliation,” Rowe said. “You’re going to see more terrorist attacks here, and I personally like going to football games and being in a group of people without worrying about bombs blowing up in my backyard.”
Amid the skepticism about the effectiveness and need for a strike, some, including Alma Habib, a 22-year-old Syrian American nursing student, argued it was in the best interest of Syrians for the U.S. to act militarily.
“Being a Syrian, wanting the U.S. to bomb my country, that’s a big deal,” Habib said. “That shows you how serious the situation has become and how bad it is.”
But as the congressman weighs the input from the constituents he’s represented for nearly nine years, Cleaver admitted the decision would be the toughest one he’s faced.
“It will be the most difficult vote I’ve ever made in my life,” he said. “I’ve never had a vote that will cause me to lose sleep as much as this vote.”