Wariness, optimism from IL Congressmen after Obama’s Syria speech

September 11, 2013

AP/file
President Barack Obama speaking on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013.

Illinois Congressmen are having mixed reactions to President Barack Obama’s decision to hold off on a military strike against Syria. The administration is working out a developing diplomatic deal aimed at destroying Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons.

The plan Obama outlined in his speech Tuesday likely means Illinois’ congressional delegation won’t have to take a tough vote in the near future about whether to authorize a strike, which polls show has become increasingly unpopular among a war-weary American public.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, her party’s House chief deputy whip, said the president made a strong moral argument to keep up the threat of military action against Syria.

Schakowsky, from Evanston, said she was especially stirred by the president’s graphic description of a Syrian father trying to rouse his children after they had been gassed.

“Part of my decision is informed by my being a Jew, whose people were gassed and the world stood by," she said, “And I think the U.S. can save innocent children by deterring the use of chemical weapons.”

Schakowsky said that moral argument would incline her to vote in favor of a military strike if the issue comes up for a vote, though she’s hopeful that recent discussions about having Syria turn over its chemical weapons to Russia might spur the international community into acting before that.

Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton, the House GOP chief deputy whip, criticized the president for seeming to take two options off the table: overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and having the U.S., itself, secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

“What the president is basically arguing for is for a gesture, for a response,” Roskam said. “And I think that he’s not made the case that American military might is going to be unleashed in such a way that it will make a difference.”

Hours before the president’s speech, Roskam announced he was bucking the House GOP leadership in opposing a military strike on Syria, though he wouldn’t say specifically what - if anything - the U.S. should do if diplomacy fails.

Before Tuesday’s developments, the vast majority of Illinois’ 20-member congressional delegation said they were still undecided on whether to authorize a strike. Some were deeply skeptical, citing overwhelming constituent opposition to U.S. intervention. Only three lawmakers - Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, and Sen. Mark Kirk and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, both Republicans - had spoken in favor of a U.S. strike.

But as flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding the so-called “Russian plan” put the brakes on a possible strike authorization vote Tuesday, some Illinois congressmen seized on the diplomatic option as a possible way out of a military strike.

Earlier in the afternoon Tuesday, Chicago Democratic Congressman Danny Davis announced he would have likely voted against a military strike. And after the president’s speech, Democratic Congressman Bill Foster, of Naperville, urged diplomacy to move ahead, with a military strike as a “last resort.”

But Democrat Rep. Brad Schneider, of Deerfield, also expressed a wariness about whether Syria and Russia could be trusted to make good on their diplomatic vows.

“[It’s] a positive potential development,” Schneider said after Tuesday’s speech. “We’ll have to see and let it play out. I still, as the president said, believe that the United States has to stand ready. It can not be an effort to delay or stall or extend Assad’s ability to use his chemical weapons.”