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STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY

Interview with Denis McDonough; Congressional Reaction

Aired September 8, 2013 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CANDY CROWLEY, HOST: Today, U.S. intelligence agencies authenticate a series of horrific videos of what appear to be victims of sarin gas attacks in Syria -- a DVD designed to punctuate the president's argument that U.S. must strike.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We may not solve the whole problem, but this particular problem, using chemical weapons on children, this one we might have an impact on. And that's worth acting on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: In a pivotal week that includes top secret briefings, open hearings and a presidential speech to the nation, the latest from his chief of staff, Denis McDonough.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Reach higher!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: And can a speech, even from someone as rhetorically gifted as this president, overcome this?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think we should stay the hell out of there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When are we going to start dealing with the major problems in this country?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: It's shaping up not as Republican versus Democrat or hawks versus doves, but as Washington versus the rest of the country.

Joining us, three members of Congress who feel the heat in their districts.

And our political panel on what gets back-burnered while Syria boils. Then, millions of Syrian refugees pour into neighboring countries. CNN's Sanjay Gupta reports from Lebanon.

This is STATE OF THE UNION.

Good morning from Washington.

I'm Candy Crowley.

We'll bring you our interview with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough in a minute, but first, the shocking videos obtained by CNN documenting the effects of the chemical attack in Syria. We need to warn you, these are graphic, they are gruesome. These are children apparently dying from a sarin gas attack. These videos have been shown to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, all in an effort to bolster the administration's case to intervene in Syria.

Joining me now, CNN chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim, welcome to CNN.

I haven't had a chance to tell you that yet, so...

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks for (INAUDIBLE).

CROWLEY: So good to have you -- Dana, the videos clearly meant the kind of drive the vote.

Is it?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At this point, it's hard to see how it will. Look, I'll just tell you what their plans are.

As you said, they've -- they played it in the Senate Intelligence Committee. The chairwoman of that committee, Dianne Feinstein, asked for it to be distributed more widely. They're going to be -- it's likely going to be played tomorrow night at a big classified briefing in the House, right.

And here's...

CROWLEY: Plus, it's on their Web site...

BASH: Oh, and it's on the Web site...

CROWLEY: -- (INAUDIBLE).

BASH: Right. And this was a -- the problem is that, yes, of course this hits home the moral objective, which is to make sure that this doesn't happen again.

But that's not the issue for so many of these members of Congress, who are truly undecided and maybe even leaning no. They know it's bad. They know it's horrible. But there are questions that have gone unanswered from the administration in all of those classified briefings, the public hearings as well, is what is the military objective?

What happens the day after the strikes?

What's our goal there?

They're not getting these answers. And you have that up against what you just played, which is overwhelming opposition from the people back home. And people are just saying, I don't know how to do this. And the combination of hawks versus liberals is just stunning and, frankly, very telling.

SCIUTTO: Well, I think underwhelmed by the intelligence, also underwhelmed by the administration's full court press in the hearings last week. Generals -- General Dempsey, Secretaries Kerry and Hagel. You hear Kerry impassioned, Hagel less so, General Dempsey something of the reluctant warrior.

And one point I hear them making more often now is the risk that these weapons fall into terrorist hands and will be used, making the threat more immediate than Iran and North Korea off in the distance.

Secretary Kerry said just a few minutes ago, if we don't act, these could be used on a daily basis by anyone anywhere. So trying to really hit home to Americans. But we -- we haven't seen that movement yet.

BASH: And if I just can add that the other concern for many members of Congress is, what if you do hit and you get some of the chemical weapons, but not all of them and then he does it again?

SCIUTTO: Yes.

BASH: Then what does the U.S. do?

CROWLEY: Right. Which is -- which has been a question up there for a long time now, do we just keep going back if he uses them?

Let me ask you, because International support has been about the same as domestic support, saying, oh, this was terrible, but boy he -- they just -- Secretary Kerry working very hard, but what he's got is, yes, it was terrible.

SCIUTTO: Well, the president's coalition of the willing is no bigger today than it was last week. And, in fact, you have some pullback, right. France and the EU now saying they're not going to act until the U.N. issues its findings.

You did have Qatar say a short time ago that they support intervention. But they, like everyone else, deliberately evading about not saying they support military action.

CROWLEY: Jim Sciutto, Dana Bash, thanks for joining us.

As I mentioned, we spoke a little bit earlier to White House chief of -- to the White House chief of staff.

And the first question was about international support.

Joining me now, Denis McDonough, chief of staff at the White House.

Thanks for being here.

I want to ask you something right now.

If the U.S. Should launch a strike, is there any country anyway that would provide military equipment or military personnel to help us?

MCDONOUGH: Well, it's important to see the statement that was, uh, released by the G-20 on Friday, where we had several countries joining us in calling for the Syrian regime to be held accountable for any...

CROWLEY: But not supporting a U.S. Strike?

MCDONOUGH: -- be held ac...

CROWLEY: Let's make that clear.

MCDONOUGH: -- to be held accountable for an -- an instance that nobody now is debating, which is interesting. Nobody now debates the intelligence, which makes clear -- and we have high confidence about this -- that on August -- in August, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. A former Iranian president has indicated that he believes that. The entire world believes that. We're talking to Congress about that now. So Congress...

CROWLEY: Because everyone believes that.

MCDONOUGH: -- has an opportunity this week to answer a simple question -- should there be consequences for him for having used that material?

CROWLEY: The president...

MCDONOUGH: There is going to be a lot of interest in the answer to that question in Tehran, among Hezbollah and in Damascus. And we should be very clear about it.

CROWLEY: I want to ask you about Tehran and the message to Tehran in a minute. But let me get to this -- to this point.

Right now, the president has talked about it's the world's red line. The president has talked about all the neighboring countries that are threatened by what Assad has done and his use of chemical weapons.

Are any of them willing to provide military equipment or military personnel?

Do you have a firm commitment from anybody?

MCDONOUGH: Well, we've got commitments from, as you saw in the statement, and as you've seen in a series of statements since, including yesterday out of Brussels, where the EU came out and said that the Syrian government should be held to account.

CROWLEY: Moral support.

MCDONOUGH: Well, look, I think it...

CROWLEY: And that specific report, not -- it's not specific support for the strike at this point. MCDONOUGH: Well, at -- not at this point, but it is specific, uh, support for, uh, holding him to account and it is a recognition that it happened. So we are no longer debating whether it happened or whether it didn't happen. And that's important.

But we do have plenty of friends who are standing with us.

But let's remember why the president said it's an international red line. Going back almost 100 years, 1925, the Geneva Protocol against the use of these terrible weapons, uh, that's been in place for almost 100 years.

CROWLEY: And it's a protocol that does not include and here's the punishment if it happens, we should say that.

MCDONOUGH: It's a protocol (INAUDIBLE)...

CROWLEY: So the answer is pretty much no at this point...

MCDONOUGH: It's a protocol that has...

CROWLEY: -- that we have a commitment.

MCDONOUGH: -- allowed us to ensure that our people, our troops, men and women in uniform, have nat -- not been subjected to attacks with chemical weapons since World War I. That's the important issue here. We want to -- we want to continue it -- to have it that way.

CROWLEY: So let me just put this to rest. No, we have no firm commitments for military personnel or military equipment from any other country?

MCDONOUGH: I -- look, we have -- we have plenty of support. I'm not going to get into who is going to do what in any particular operation. We feel very good about the support we have and we'll continue to build more.

CROWLEY: OK. But at this point, more moral support than anything, is what you're talking about?

MCDONOUGH: You're trying to get me to say that. I'm not going to say that.

CROWLEY: All right. Will you wait until after the U.N. inspectors come out with their report on the chemical weapons before a strike?

MCDONOUGH: Obviously, we're interested in what the U.N. inspectors have to say, but let's remember a couple of things.

One, they're not going to be able to tell us, because their mandate will not allow them to tell us, who is responsible for the attack.

CROWLEY: Right. MCDONOUGH: So it could be interesting corroborative information for what we already know and what I've just indicated to you, everybody whom I speak with has indicated to me they believe, which is he used chemical weapons in August...

CROWLEY: Sure.

MCDONOUGH: -- against his own people.

CROWLEY: But the question comes from the fact that the EU, in their statement, seemed to be indicating, we want to see this U.N. report, that there's a, you know, there's the imprimatur of the -- of -- of having, uh, the U.N. saying, yes, they were used.

MCDONOUGH: It obviously is very important...

CROWLEY: Right.

MCDONOUGH: -- to our friends in Europe and other friends, as well.

So we've indicated to, as Secretary Kerry said yesterday, we've indicated to our friends that we'll come out -- we'll continue to work with them. We'll see what, uh, what comes out of New York. We're, right now, focused on Washington and trying to get Congressional support for this...

CROWLEY: But would you wait for the EU report?

MCDONOUGH: Well, we're -- right now, the time line seemed (INAUDIBLE)...

CROWLEY: The U.N. report?

MCDONOUGH: Right now, the time lines seem to work consistent with one another. But we'll see how this works. The president ultimately is going to make this decision, in consultation with Congress, on our time line as best suits our interests.

CROWLEY: So when the president speaks on Tuesday night, do you have and will he reveal a direct link between, um, Hafez Al-Assad -- Bashar al-Assad and these chemical weapons being used?

MCDONOUGH: Well, I'm not going to pre -- I'm not going to front run the president's, uh, address.

But here's what we do know...

CROWLEY: Is there one?

And does the intelligence show a direct link?

MCDONOUGH: Here's, uh, here's what we know. Here's the common sense test. I'm not going to talk to you about intelligence. Here's the common sense test. The material was used in the eastern suburbs of Damascus that had been controlled by the opposition for some time. It was delivered by rockets, rockets which we know the Assad regime has, and we have no indications that the opposition has.

And you've now seen -- uh, CNN, in fact, ran these videos yesterday. You've seen the, uh, video proof of the outcome of those attacks.

All of that leads to, as I say, a quite strong common sense test, irrespective of the intelligence, that suggests that, uh, the regime carried this out.

Now, do we have a picture or do we have irrefutable, uh, uh, beyond a reasonable doubt evidence?

CROWLEY: Yes.

MCDONOUGH: This is not a court of law. And intelligence does not work that way.

CROWLEY: Right. So...

MCDONOUGH: Um, so what we...

CROWLEY: (INAUDIBLE).

MCDONOUGH: -- do know and what we know the common sense test says is he is responsible for this. He should be held to account.

CROWLEY: I want to play you something that the president said Friday, when he spoke about why he asked for a Congressional authorization of this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we will be more effective and stronger if, in fact, Congress authorizes this action.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Is the opposite also true, that if Congress does not authorize this action, it will be less effective and weaker?

MCDONOUGH: Look over the course of our history. That's the -- that's the strength of the War Powers Resolution. That's a -- that's the strength of "The Constitution." When Congress...

CROWLEY: But without Congressional approval...

MCDONOUGH: -- is with us...

CROWLEY: -- would the president -- the president's hand be weaker?

Would a strike be less effective?

Is -- is the opposite of that statement true? MCDONOUGH: I, uh, the statement stands on its own. There is no question about it. Together, we're stronger, the history shows us that. And not only in Damascus, not only in Syria, but in Iran and other places, as well.

CROWLEY: But I want to play just a little bit for you of an ad from MoveOn.org. They, of course were very supportive of the president in both of his elections to the White House. And they're putting out an ad urging Congress to vote "no" on a strike in Syria.

And here's part of it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What should America expect if we rush into Syria alone, with no real plan for the consequences?

We already know -- it gets worse. Congress, most Americans oppose missile strikes in Syria. Don't lead us down this road again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: It -- it argues that we didn't think we were going to be in Iraq for as long as we were there. We didn't think we were going to be in Afghanistan for as long as -- we are still there.

Why is this different?

MCDONOUGH: Look, the -- uh, let's go back and look at any number of things. I just told you that there's not a single member of Congress debating the intelligence with us right now. Well, the fact is that that was not the case in Iraq. I was there and I saw that one up close and personally.

We are very disciplined about exactly what we're talking about here. We're not talking about regime change. We're not talking about occupation. We're not talking...

CROWLEY: What are you talking about?

MCDONOUGH: -- we're not talking about boots on the ground. The president has been very clear that there will be no boots on the ground.

This is about targeted, limited, consequential action to deter and degrade so that he does not carry out these terrible attacks again, the attacks that you showed here on your -- on your station throughout the day yesterday. CROWLEY: So the mission is to deter and -- to deter chemical attacks and to degrade his ability to do so?

Let me just quickly ask you about this Iran component. I am confused by this idea that somehow the U.S. Uh, you know, backing up words with a missile strike into Syria sends a message to Iran.

We went to Iraq with more than 100,000 troops. We took out a leader and it didn't affect their behavior at all.

Why would a missile strike in Syria do so?

MCDONOUGH: Because of exactly that -- well, there's a couple different reasons.

Number one, let's remember that the Iranians have a particular history with chemical weapons -- the receiver, by the way, of attacks with chemical weapons, not the sender. So they're very focused on what's happening in Syria. And we have plenty of reason to believe that they're very uncomfortable with what their, uh, what their ally chose to do here.

But as importantly, when we lay down -- and the international community lays down a red line, as we have now seven times in Security Council resolutions against the Iranians, saying that they cannot develop nuclear weapons, and they continue to do it, we have to make sure that they do not misinterpret where the West is and make it -- misinterpret how we react to Syria, to suggest that they have greater operating space or more wiggle room as it relates to its nuclear...

CROWLEY: But again...

MCDONOUGH: -- nuclear program.

CROWLEY: -- they didn't seem all that deterred when we went into Iraq.

But, nonetheless, um, let's talk about the risks, because you're right, I don't hear people saying I'm not sure this evidence is strong enough. Here's what I hear.

What's the mission?

You just defined that.

What are the risks?

What did the president weigh when he decided a strike was something he needed to do?

MCDONOUGH: Well, the risks are many fold.

One, the risk that somehow we get dragged into the middle of an ongoing civil war. For more than two years now, the president has been very restrained. His restraint is an -- is evidence of our strength in this. And we have to, obviously, be very careful and very targeted and very limited in our engagement so we do not get dragged into the middle of this.

And then there's all -- obviously, Republican risk of reaction, uh, and retaliation against us or our friends. And we're, uh, obviously providing for and planning for every contingency in that regard. And we'll be ready for that.

But part of why we are being very clear about the targeted, limited nature of this, no boots on the ground, this is not Iraq or Afghanistan, this is not Libya, this is not an extended air campaign. This is something that's targeted, limited and effective, so as to underscore that he should not think that he can get away with this again.

CROWLEY: Um, you have said a couple of times, as has the president, no boots on the ground.

Will there be pilots in the air over Syria?

MCDONOUGH: I'm not going to get into operational details like that.

CROWLEY: So neither a yes or no.

Secretary Kerry has said that history will judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turn a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings.

In the end, all of you, from up to and including the president, have said, the president can do this without Congressional approval.

Given what the secretary of State has said are the consequences here, um, it is difficult to believe that you all aren't signaling that, yes, you will go ahead, regardless of what Congress does.

MCDONOUGH: Look, I'd say two things.

In terms of turning a blind eye, I hope that before any member of Congress makes his decision on how to vote, they take a look at that video that you all made available to the world yesterday. Take a look at that and try to turn away from that. That's one.

Two, our consultation with Congress and the president's request for authorization is not an empty exercise. You've seen what we're doing...

CROWLEY: (INAUDIBLE) no, I'm not saying it is...

MCDONOUGH: -- you see the effort that we're going through...

CROWLEY: -- I'm just saying, you know, that given the stakes here...

MCDONOUGH: And (INAUDIBLE)...

CROWLEY: -- that you were outlining and the Secretary outlined, how can you do anything other but go ahead and strike, even if Congress tells you not to?

MCDONOUGH: And what I would say is this, is that -- and this is, again, what the president said -- is if members of Congress want to answer that question, to say that there should be consequences for this action, than they're going to have to vote yes for the authorization.

CROWLEY: White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, thank you for joining us.

MCDONOUGH: Thanks for having me, Candy.

It's really nice to be here.

CROWLEY: Right now, the reality is the votes are not there. Just 25 senators have indicated they'll vote yes. Twenty are opposed to intervention, 55 still undecided.

In the House, passage looks even more remote at this moment -- 24 members backing the president, 123 opposed. And that includes 23 Democrats and 100 Republicans. Two hundred and eighty-eight House members are still undecided.

I am joined now by three members of the House, Buck McKeon. He is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. His committee begins hearings on Syria Tuesday.

Tennessee Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn. She, like other conservative members, is opposed to intervention, which puts them in alliance with the Congressional Progressive Caucus. One of their members, Massachusetts Democrat, Jim McGovern, is here, as well.

Thank you all for joining us.

I want to first talk about some of the things that Denis had to say.

And first to you, Congressman McKeon.

Have you seen any intelligence that directly links Assad to this chemical weapons strike.

And do you need it?

REP. BUCK MCKEON (R), CALIFORNIA: I've seen what they've shown us. And they have evidence showing the regime has probably the responsibility for the attacks. They haven't linked it directly to Assad, in my estimation.

CROWLEY: So is probably good enough?

Because it was probably that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and he didn't.

Is probably good enough in this case? MCKEON: Well, Assad used them almost a year ago and we didn't get involved then. Probably should have done something sooner. It's a little late and I'm not sure -- you know, 100,000 people have been killed, about 1,400 by chemical weapons or a few more. It's a tragedy all the way around. It's immoral to be using chemical weapons, obviously, against your own people.

By the same token, I'm concerned about the morality of sending our troops into harm's way without providing for the things they need. You know, the president, in the last couple of years, has sent -- has done the surge in Afghanistan, while cutting the military budget; flew missions over Libya, while cutting the military budget; changed to a Pacific strategy while cutting the military budget; and now this. We're asking them to do more with less. I think there's a moral responsibility that we have to our troops.

CROWLEY: And I want to follow up on that in a bit. But I want to get each of you just to chime in here in our first part about what the chief of staff had to say. You had said, I just don't know what the mission is here. Your inclination is to vote "no."

And we heard Denis McDonough say, look, here's the mission. We are going to degrade Assad's ability to use chemical weapons and deter him from doing so. That's our mission.

Is that good enough?

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R), TENNESSEE: That is not good enough for me, because every mission should be clearly defined. And then you need the execution of what that strategy is going to be. And then you need to know what that exit strategy is going to be. And I don't see that.

And as the chairman said repeatedly, this president is saying do more with less, even to the point that the day before he starts saying let's go to Syria, he cuts their pay and they're going to get less than they were expecting. I think that part of the crisis is what is being done to the funding of our military.

CROWLEY: And, again, I do want to talk about funding of the military. But I want to ask you, because I know that you intend to vote "no" at this point on a resolution, can you look your commander- in-chief, the leader of the Western world, who has come to Congress and said we need to do this, we have an obligation to do this, and tell him no?

REP. JIM MCGOVERN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Look, I -- I'm a big supporter of President Obama's. I have great admiration for him. I support him on almost everything. And -- but sometimes friends can disagree. And a...

CROWLEY: But this is a big one.

MCGOVERN: Well, this is a big one, but the point of the matter, this is not -- this is not a question about party loyalty.

MCGOVERN: This is a question for all of us about what is right. This is about a conscience.

Is this the most effective thing to do?

And I'm -- I'll just be honest with you, I -- I'm troubled -- and this is not just with the administration, but by the international community and the international organizations, that there's this lack of imagination, a lack -- the inability to think out of the box about what are the alternatives here.

We're being told that there's two choices -- do nothing or bomb Syria. Clearly, there have to be some other -- other choices in between. We ought to explore them.

CROWLEY: Let me ask, all three, about the military -- I've got about a minute, so I -- has anybody seen any evidence that somehow the U.S., whatever U.S. servicemen are involved, whatever equipment is involved, will not be funded properly for this particular mission?

I mean there's -- there's no evidence of that. I understand that in general, you have a concern about the military budget.

MCKEON: All I've heard is that something as important as this, they'll find the money for.

CROWLEY: Sure.

MCKEON: But it has to come from somewhere else. The money is fungible.

BLACKBURN: Right.

MCKEON: If they're not going to have enough money for the training and the equipping of our...

BLACKBURN: And the readiness...

MCKEON: -- of our people.

BLACKBURN: -- redeployment readiness.

CROWLEY: But so is it...

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: -- an argument...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Yes.

CROWLEY: -- against it to say well, we don't have money for it, because, clearly, they'll find the money.

MCGOVERN: The reality is, we'll do -- if we decide go to war in Syria, we'll do in Syria what we have done in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that's borrow the money. We all talk about the debt that we have, well, a big chunk of the debt is these -- is these war costs.

CROWLEY: I want to ask you -- the three of you to stand by.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right.

CROWLEY: We'll be right back.

And when we return, saying no to the president and what it means for the United States' position in the world. That's up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: As you've heard, the president has quite a tough sell on Capitol Hill.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I knew this was going to be a heavy lift. I said that on Saturday, when I said we were going to take it to Congress.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: What it will mean if Congress rejects the president's request, with our lawmakers next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: I'm back with Congressman Buck McKeon, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and Congressman Jim McGovern.

These tapes have come out. Clearly, the administration and supporters on Capitol Hill want people to see these tapes. And they're horrific. These are babies dying, apparently, of a sarin gas attack.

Is this something that will move you or your constituents, from what you've heard back home?

BLACKBURN: Candy, you know, in my district, with a major military post with the nation's largest community of Kurds, we've all seen this. We all agree that what Assad or the rebels have done is horrific.

But we also know that to go in and do this in Syria, we -- the military, it's immoral. It is immoral to continue to ask our men and women in the military to go out without the equipment, the training, the readiness and the funds to do this.

CROWLEY: Well, they've said they're going to get the equipment. What...

BLACKBURN: (INAUDIBLE).

CROWLEY: -- what -- tell me what about...

MCGOVERN: Look, these tapes break my heart. And it's awful. There's a terrible humanitarian crisis going on in Syria. It's -- a lot of it is perpetrated by Assad. The rebels are responsible for it. There are all these refugee camps.

So the issue is not is this terrible?

The issue is what is effective?

What is -- what can we do to be helpful?

And I don't believe that going in and bombing Syria is going to help those -- those suffering people. I think it's going to increase the suffering. Nor is it going to get us closer to a political settlement, which the president says he wants.

MCKEON: I have 31 grandchildren. Seeing pictures of those children lying there dead is -- is heart-rending. There's no question about that.

But we still have the basic problem of asking the military to do more with less.

The other day, after the meeting at the White House, the president came up to me and said I know how concerned you are about sequestration, so am I.

So I asked from for a meeting with the president. I'm waiting to hear back from the White House. I want to sit down and talk to him about this.

I cannot guarantee that we can get votes for it, but I know that a lot of people have the same concerns that I do. And if we can fix this, it may help some people in their vote.

CROWLEY: Still, it seems -- and all of you expressed this -- this concern, but it seems like there is -- there is one issue and then there is the other.

Are you willing to vote against the president if he won't agree to somehow rejuvenate military by dealing with the budget cuts?

BLACKBURN: Well, and, Candy, it's the leadership. It is a lack of leadership on the president's part.

In my district Friday, 120 -- 1,020 contacts into our district, only three were for action in Syria. The president has not made his case. He has not defined the mission. And there is not the support from the American people...

CROWLEY: But could he make his case...

BLACKBURN: -- for this.

CROWLEY: -- for the three of you -- could he make his...

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: -- is there something he could say?

MCGOVERN: (INAUDIBLE) to me, this is not about rejuvenating the military. I want to fix sequestration, too.

I mean the -- the president is whether or not what he's proposing is the right thing to do, whether it's the effective thing to do. And I just don't believe that's that -- that's the case.

You know, there have to be other alternatives out there.

BLACKBURN: And the long-term ramifications...

MCGOVERN: Right.

BLACKBURN: -- of something.

CROWLEY: So let me ask...

MCKEON: I -- I don't look at it as a vote against the president. I look at it as a vote for our men and women in uniform, who keep being asked to do more with less.

MCGOVERN: If I were the president, I would withdraw my request for authorization of this particular point. I don't believe the support is there in Congress. People view war as a last resort. And I don't think people think that we're at that point. So I would - I would step back a little bit. We have other issues we have to deal with in Congress domestic and international. But I think at this point if you asked for my advice, I would say withdraw authorization at this point.

BLACKBURN: The uncertainty, the hesitancy has not served them well.

CROWLEY: So real quickly. Is there anything the president could say that would convince you to say yes on this other than on the defense budget?

MCKEON: Fix sequestration.

BLACKBURN: Sequester.

MCGOVERN: He has to convince me that this was effective and this is the right thing to do. I'm not there.

(CROSSTALK) CROWLEY: All right. Thank you all so much. I appreciate you being here. When we return, new alliances form on Capitol Hill as liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans find common ground in opposing military strikes in Syria. Our political panel is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Let's just say Americans are giving Congress an earful on Syria.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We sent you to stop the war. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think we should stay the hell out of there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not just the first red line that we have drawn and he's crossed. He's been crossing red lines for 2 1/2 years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I say we bail out of everybody and say guys you are on your own.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: (INAUDIBLE) the possibility of primary challengers and voter backlash may affect their vote on Syria. Our political panel is up next.

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CROWLEY: Joining me now around the table CNN commentators David Frum, Ana Navarro, and two of our CROSSFIRE hosts Stephanie Cutter and Van Jones. We should say CROSSFIRE debuts tomorrow night, 6:30 P.M. Eastern time. You're up first with Newt Gingrich and we will see you at S.E. Cupp on Tuesday night and they'll (ph) go back and forth. So be sure and watch that.

OK. Let's talk about public support for this. Is there anything this president can say on Tuesday night that is going to move this mountain?

DAVID FRUM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The president has already put himself into a desperately bad situation. He has created a very (INAUDIBLE) members of Congress. What he said is, this is a free vote for you. Your constituents don't want you to go to war. But there's a part of you that wants to do something about chemical weapons. I'm telling you that if you can vote no and I may still do it anyway. So the line of least resistance for the careerist and unheroic member of Congress and there are some of those is to vote no and hope the president goes ahead anyway.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I hope there is something he can say. And we have seen this president give very good speeches when he's on. He hasn't been on this entire time. All he has done so far is tell us everything this is not but not tell us why we're doing this, what we're doing, how we're affecting the world. And I think the problem he's got though is the timing is a killer here. There is already 100 plus announced no votes in Congress. And I think that even if he levitates and speaks in tongues on Tuesday night, those no votes are not going to change.

CROWLEY: Should you agree the president has (ph) been not great on pushing this?

VAN JONES, CROSSFIRE HOST: Obviously. I mean he's tried to be half hawk and half dove. So he's not hawkish enough for the hawks, not dovish enough for the doves. A half hawk half dove bird doesn't fly in Washington D.C. That's what we're seeing but -- (CROSSTALK)

NAVARRO: -- half hearted about it all.

JONES: Fair enough. I am shocked to hear Republicans -- my whole adult life I've never heard of a war they didn't like. I've never heard of a military strike they didn't like and now you have this president adopting Mitt Romney's policy in Syria and Republicans are deserting him on Mitt Romney's muscular policy in Syria. There's something here that doesn't smell right to me. I'm against the war but to see Republicans suddenly finding every excuse in the book not to be there for the president is weird.

FRUM: There are a lot of Republicans who opposed Kosovo and there are a lot of Republicans who opposed Bosnia, and for similar reasons. Republicans go to war for national security interests. And when you have a war like Kosovo where the president says we're going here for the general good of humanity but not for something that America gets, Republicans get queasy about that.

(CROSSTALK)

NAVARRO: Mitt Romney is over. Republicans have turned the page. It's time for you to turn the page. And I think it's (INAUDIBLE) and try to make this into a partisan argument.

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: You better jump in here, Stephanie.

NAVARRO: This is not partisan.

(CROSSTALK)

It is partisan that there are some Democrats voting for it because it's President Obama. It's politics, OK? And that's fine. It's part of the equation.

CROWLEY: Does it matter if public opinion runs against this? Should it matter?

STEPHANIE CUTTER, CROSSFIRE HOST: Of course it matters. Of course it matters.

CROWLEY: In what way?

CUTTER: Because when you -- when you are using military action, we are not launching a war here. This is a limited strike to - as Denis McDonough said on your program earlier today to degrade Assad's chemical weapon capability and to deter Assad from using it again, but also deter others who were watching this very closely from using chemical weapons so the United States means what it says. There are consequences to violating this international norm that's been in place for a very long time with countries with 98 percent of the world population have signed on to. CUTTER: Now, you always want to use military strikes with the American people behind you. But let's face reality here. This is a fatigued country when it comes to war for very good reason. We've been at war for over a decade. Some of it was fumbled. And I'm not trying to place blame on a previous president but those are realities that we're dealing with. So the president --that's particularly the reason why the president went to Congress because he knows how grave these decisions are and he wants American people behind him. Now, does commander the commander in chief always have the ability to act even when the American people aren't behind him or without congressional authorization? Yes, he does. Will this president do that? I don't know.

CROWLEY: Let me ask (INAUDIBLE) question here. Let's say Congress says no. Forget what the president then does. What does that do to him for the rest of the agenda?

FRUM: It means his intervention which he can still go ahead with. I think he has legal right to do it, but it had before be 100 percent successful. It will be even worse if he goes with support of one House where his party is majority and loses the other. In that case, the deal will be if this works exactly the way Stephanie said it would be, limited strikes, precisely stated end and do not put United States into a situation where either the Syrian regime falls leaving with us a mess or it doesn't fall inviting America to go in deeper but the coin lands exactly on its edge and stays there, then he's a big winner. But if that coin waivers or tumbles or lands heads or tails and we get either of the two outcomes that are most probable that the president says he does not want, then he's going to have a lot of political trouble. A lot of (INAUDIBLE) political trouble too.

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: On the agenda.

(CROSSTALK)

NAVARRO: Leadership reasons internationally and domestically. He's going to have to act. Domestically if he doesn't, at that point Congress knows just what a weak president he is. He'll go to establishing a new high bar to what it means to being a lame duck this early. It would be devastating I think for rest of his agenda.

CROWLEY: Do you think so, Stephanie? I mean do you agree with that analysis? CUTTER: Well I think that this is not a static debate. The one thing I do agree with if Congress does not approve this resolution, that it is a blow to the United States. Not a blow to the president. It's a blow to the United States authority all over this world.

(CROSSTALK)

It's a blow to our authority all over this world. And unprecedented. That's why you're going to see some members of Congress vote for that particular reason. Some said they're voting for that particular reason. I believe that's your position as well. JONES: Let me say a couple things. First of all I think that if he does not get this vote, he should not go to war. He shouldn't treat the Congress of the United States like a focus group. However, things will continue to change.

(CROSSTALK)

CUTTER: The president is doing this so that we can approach this issue, this problem, this threat to our own security with one voice. We're stronger when we do that. He's not using Congress for a focus group. And I think that's kind of insulting.

JONES: Well listen. I don't think the president of the United States uses Congress as a focus group. If Congress says, no we shouldn't go, but there will be other beats in the story. And I think the president should preserve the ability to respond to those.

CROWLEY: Is there any way this president could not go if Congress says no? I mean John Kerry is out there comparing Assad to Hitler and saying history will never forgive us if we don't do something?

NAVARRO: Candy, do you remember John Kerry's speeches right before the president made the decision to send this to Congress? I think all of us thought that that action was imminent. So I think if anything we've learned not to try to predict what this president is going to do.

(CROSSTALK)

CUTTER: Action was imminent. The president then decided to go to Congress so that this country would be speaking with a more stronger voice. What is true then is still true now. Assad has used chemical weapons in violation of an international agreement and the president never made an argument that there was an imminent threat. Kerry never made an argument there was an imminent threat. What the president (ph) including (ph) --

FRUM: Secretary Kerry went on Sunday shows last Sunday to praise the president's decision as courageous and that's not a compliment.

(CROSSTALK)

CUTTER: War until the fall of 2002. We didn't actually go to war until march of 2003. And that was argued to be actually an imminent threat unlike this particular situation.

NAVARRO: If he changed his mind on a (INAUDIBLE) he went on a 45-minute walk with McDonough. And all of the sudden the direction happened -

(CROSSTALK)

CUTTER: They were discussing on whether or not to go to Congress.

(CROSSTALK)

NAVARRO: Nobody knows how this president operates because it's hard to -

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: Van Jones, Ana Navarro, Stephanie Cutter, David Frum, thank you all for coming. To be continued.

When we return, 2 million Syrian refugees have fled their war ravaged country. Many flooding across the border with Lebanon. Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta gives us a firsthand look at what they face. That's next.

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CROWLEY: Coming up on standing on Fareed Zakaria, GPS, from standing on the sidelines over Iraq to standing side by side over Syria. France is backing Obama on military strikes. Fareed finds out why.

But next Syria's civil war has creating millions of refugees but the camps there fleeing (INAUDIBLE) are offering little relief and charging them to stay there. Sanjay Gupta reports from Lebanon.

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CROWLEY: Overshadowed in the debate about Syria is what's happening to millions of people who are fleeing their war-torn country. CNN's chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta has been getting a firsthand look at their plight in some of the Syrian refugee camps on the Syrian/Lebanon border.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: For Arkan Abdallah (ph), the constant shelling in Homs was becoming too much. But it was after this occurred to her middle son, 4-year-old Yusuf, she knew she had to leave. It was an explosion, she told me, that led to these burns. She packed up her three sons and what little she had and traveled 12 hours, mostly by foot, to arrive here at this camp. It's one of the largest of the Bekaa Valley along the Syrian/Lebanese border.

The youngest son Alla (ph) is 8 months old and has now spent half his life as a refugee. He is severely malnourished, even though he's breast-fed. How difficult is it to get food? It's tough she tells me. When the mom hasn't had enough food to eat herself.

Today they get drastically needed medical attention and vaccines for malaria and polio thanks to UNICEF. But make no mistake, Lebanon is buckling under the weight of the refugees who arrive here every 15 seconds. In this country of over four million, the United Nations say there are some 720,000 registered refugees, but doctors here believe the number to be more than twice that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very, very a lot. Very a lot.

GUPTA: More than one out of every four people in Lebanon is a refugee, he tells me. And it's the people living in these surrounding communities that are now sending a message to the refugees in these valley camps. This will never be your home. This can never be your home.

The children's smiles belie a particularly awful way of life. Their story is one of fleeing the violence of their home country and then not being wanted in their adopted one.

After two years there are no fixed water facilities or system of sanitation. Instead, just the steady stream of sewage snaking its way through this 5,000 person camp. They have lost everything, their material possessions, their dignity, their permanence. To simply live like this, aid groups say refugee groups are required to pay $100 a month to the town sheriff. And the only way to make it work is to send these young kids into the fields to work for just $2 a day. It is heart wrenching.

Within these camps, there is the constant friction between two groups, those who support the Syrian regime and those who hate it. But they do share something in common. They all want to go home. Arkan (ph) and her three sons, they can't wait to leave.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: So Sanjay, totally understand but looking at those conditions and how long of them have been there, that these refugees do want to go home, do you get any sense that they have a feel for what we believe is an impending U.S. strike? Do they support it, not support it?

GUPTA: You know, it's interesting because unlike most of the rest of the world, they really don't have much access to news. So a lot of what is happening there in terms of their own information is by word of mouth. But you don't hear a lot about that as much as you hear this notion again at the end of the piece that they just do want to go home. I don't know that they know the strikes are going to happen or what difference it will make but the situation there now is not tenable, Candy, for that.

CROWLEY: Sanjay Gupta, thanks for being there for us. To find out how you can help the more than two million Syrian refugees, visit our IMPACT YOUR WORLD page that's at CNN.com/IMPACT. We'll be right back.

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CROWLEY: Thank you for watching STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Candy Crowley in Washington. Head to CNN.com/SOTU for analysis and extras. And at noon eastern today, members of the president's own party are not lining up to support military strikes in Syria. We'll talk to two undecided Representatives Gerry Connolly of Virginia and Barbara Lee of California as well as Delaware senator Chris Coons will tell us what convinced him to vote for the resolution. Tomorrow at 6:00 p.m. eastern, the president Obama will sit down with our own Wolf Blitzer. And at 6:30 p.m. eastern, is the return of CROSSFIRE to CNN. Monday's hosts are Newt Gingrich and Stephanie Cutter.

If you missed any part of today's show find us on iTunes just search, STATE OF THE UNION.

Fareed Zakaria, GPS, is next for our viewers here in the United States.