By Brian Tumulty
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Reps. Richard Hanna, Sean Maloney and Chris Collins began this past week as three of the 17 members of New York's congressional delegation who were undecided on whether the U.S. should take military action against Syria.
All three say their constituents overwhelmingly oppose military intervention.
Hanna, whose 22nd Congressional District includes most of Broome County and extends north to Lake Ontario, said he had spoken to hundreds of constituents.
"All are bone-tired of war and appropriately skeptical of another overseas military engagement,'' he said.
Collins, of the Buffalo area, said Tuesday that 95 percent of the more than 4,000 calls his offices received about Syria were from people opposed to military action.
Maloney, of the Hudson Valley, held a telephone town hall-style conference call with 14,500 constituents on Thursday where 64 percent pressed a key code indicating opposition to military action and 18 percent pressed a code indicating support.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the three lawmakers ended the week with misgivings about President Barack Obama's request that Congress approve a military strike.
Ultimately, Collins decided to oppose military action and Maloney remained undecided. Hanna appeared opposed, saying he's "unconvinced that U.S. military involvement at this time would improve the situation or advance American interests in the region'' and is "pleased to see other opportunities emerging.''
A week ago, New York's undecided lawmakers included Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and 16 of the state's 27 House members. The position of another two House members was unknown.
But opposition to military action was building as Congress returned Monday from its summer recess.
The White House held a series of classified briefings to persuade lawmakers that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime had used sarin to kill 1,400 civilians on Aug. 21. Collins and Maloney were among lawmakers who returned to Washington Sept. 1, before Congress officially resumed work, to attend those briefings.
Collins said the first briefing left him convinced Assad's government was responsible for using chemical weapons on Syrian civilians.
"I think pretty much anyone that came to that briefing walked away convinced that the attack occurred and it was what's been reported, and the folks responsible were directly tied to Assad,'' Collins said.
But that briefing didn't discuss a planned U.S. military response, he said.
"If we do it, what is it are we going to do?'' Collins wanted to know. "How limited is it? What is it going to accomplish? What are the potential ramifications and consequences?''
He said those questions went unanswered at subsequent briefings designed to reinforce Assad's link to the chemical attack.
Administration officials testifying at televised congressional hearings described a limited military action in which U.S. forces would remain out of range of Syrian government weapons. But the specific targets were not disclosed.
Secretary of State John Kerry suggested Monday the Syrian government could avert a U.S. attack by placing its chemical weapons under international control. Russian President Vladimir Putin picked up on that offer by proposing that Assad surrender control over his chemical weapons arsenal.
Gillibrand welcomed the development.
"A credible diplomatic solution at the United Nations is the best possible outcome for the United States and the world community,'' she said in a statement Tuesday. "We must fully exhaust this developing opportunity before determining whether to authorize U.S. military action.''
Several hours before Obama's televised address to the nation Tuesday night on Syria, Collins expressed skepticism to reporters about the administration's military plans, but said he would listen to the president's speech before making a decision.
After the speech he issued a statement saying he opposed military action in Syria.
"I am unconvinced that a U.S. military strike in Syria would be in the best interest of America and its allies in the region,'' his statement said. "The emergence of a non-military solution to this crisis - as we have seen in just the last 24 hours - demonstrates how ill-conceived and poorly thought-out the president's plan has been since its inception.''
Maloney, like Collins, said the classified briefings convinced him Assad's regime used chemical weapons.
"I am satisfied that we understand who did this, and it was the Syrian regime,'' he said.
But unlike Collins, he hasn't completely ruled out military action as an appropriate response.
"I have real reservations about entangling us in Syria's civil war, but I am keeping my powder dry because I don't want to undermine our diplomatic effort,'' Maloney said. "I want to see what the president is asking us to do and why, and then I'll make a judgment on it."