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Originally published September 9, 2013 at 9:00 PM | Page modified September 10, 2013 at 4:44 PM

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Public opinion set on Syria, but state’s lawmakers remain undecided

It’s been nearly three weeks since President Obama asked Congress to authorize military retaliation for a nerve-gas attack in Syria. Yet no lawmaker from Washington state has come out unequivocally for or against airstrikes targeting the Syrian government.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — It’s been nearly three weeks since a nerve-gas attack killed scores of Syrians and 10 days since President Obama asked Congress to authorize U.S. military retaliation.

Yet no lawmaker from Washington has come out unequivocally for or against airstrikes targeting the Syrian government, which the White House blames for the chemical attack. Opinion polls show many Americans have made up their minds against getting involved in Syria. But lawmakers, most of whom were flying back to Washington, D.C., on Monday after a five-week recess, were still deliberating.

Obama conceded Monday night he might lose his fight for congressional support of a military strike; however, a glimmer of a possible diplomatic solution emerged earlier Monday when the United States and Russia embraced a proposal for Syria to relinquish control of its chemical weapons.

In six network interviews, Obama said statements suggesting Syria might agree to surrender control of its stockpile were a potentially positive development. But he also said they were yet another reason for lawmakers to give him the backing he is seeking. “If we don’t maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I would like to see,” he said on CNN.

Rep. Jim McDermott — the Seattle Democrat who has been one of the delegation’s most outspoken skeptics on intervention — has not ruled out voting for a limited military engagement that could end the Syrian uprising, which has left more than 100,000 people dead.

Asked for Sen. Patty Murray’s latest position, for instance, her office emailed a statement largely reiterating points she made this past Wednesday, saying the chemical attacks must be condemned but urging caution in avoiding mistakes like those that led to America’s costly entanglement in Iraq.

Murray’s one absolute was that she would not support putting U.S. troops on the ground. A Senate resolution approved by the Foreign Relations Committee last week prohibits American troops on Syrian soil.

The White House has been briefing lawmakers, both on Capitol Hill and by phone while they were back in their districts.

While many of the 12 members of Congress from Washington state said they were still studying the administration’s evidence, no one appeared to question that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible for unleashing the nerve agent that reportedly killed more than 1,400 adults and children in a suburb of Damascus.

Freshman Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, is still weighing whether the United States must respond to the Assad regime’s use of sarin, which as a chemical weapon is banned by international norms. Saddam Hussein used it numerous times against the Kurds in northern Iraq during 1987-88, which provoked no U.S. military response.

“He believes there’s a concern that chemical weapons could be deployed without consequence and that may lead to security issues in the future,” said Stephen Carter, Kilmer’s spokesman. “However, he doesn’t think that definitively means our nation needs to take military action.”

Kilmer has said his decision would incorporate constituents’ views.

A CNN/ORC poll of 1,022 adults released Monday showed 59 percent of Americans said Congress should vote down the strike authorizations. Fifty-five percent said they would oppose a strike even with congressional approval.

Even McDermott, whose liberal 7th District is overwhelmingly against a strike, is “not a definitive ‘no,’ ” said his spokeswoman, Amber Macdonald.

Macdonald said McDermott would consider voting for targeted military action “because there are human-rights issues as well.”

The House is preparing its own versions of a resolution on how to proceed. The stated goal of the Senate resolution is to “change the momentum on the battlefield” to end the civil strife and to prevent future chemical attacks.

Other members of the delegation offered overlapping concerns they said must be addressed before they will make up their minds.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, has said she is concerned about Americans getting embroiled in “another long-term military operation without clearly defined objectives.”

A spokeswoman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said the Spokane Republican “would like the president to inform Congress how this act would fit into his broader strategy in the Middle East.”

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, said she has unanswered questions about whether committing U.S. forces would be justified. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, called himself “very skeptical” about an American mission and its end results.

Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, has said Obama needs to make his case to Congress and to the American public. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, also has not indicated his position, except to promise careful deliberation.

Two other undecided Democrats, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, have called for supplying military aid to moderate Syrian opposition fighters.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, who along with Smith and Kilmer serves on the House Armed Services Committee, is also mulling his decision. He called the evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons “convincing.”

Larsen has had two unclassified briefings by phone and attended four classified briefings since Friday. Still, he has not decided how he will vote. On Friday, he emailed constituents and put up a page on his website inviting them to weigh in.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @KyungMSong

Information from The Associated Press is included.

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