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Maine Delegation Weighs Constituents' Concerns on Syria
09/06/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The four members of Maine's congressional delegation still haven't decided how they will vote when Congress takes up the critical issue of U.S. military intervention in the increasingly brutal Syrian civil war. But in telephone calls, e-mails and online social networking sites, many Mainers are letting them know that they oppose American military intervention. While Maine's U.S. senators remain more circumspect in their positions, the state's two Democratic members of Congress say constituent positions will weigh heavily in their final decision. A.J. Higgins has more.

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First District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree says of all the issues that have prompted Mainers to call or e-mail her office, few match the intensity of the ongoing Congressional debate over whether to stage a military strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"You know a lot of issues will get some people feeling one way and some people feeling another, but this is just dramatic," Pingree says. "Ninety-eight percent of over 1,000 calls in the last week or so have been people saying, 'I don't think it's the right time.'"

And 2nd Congressional District Congressman Michael Michaud says the calls and messages coming into his office are overwhelmingly opposed to American military action against the Syrian government - despite its disputed use of chemical weapons against its own people. Michaud says he is constantly weighing the opinions of his northern Maine constituents.

"It definitely will weigh in quite a bit in my final decision," Michaud says, "And one of the things that I'll be waiting on before I make that final decision is that we have a security briefing with the administration on Monday when we head back, so I'll be asking questions of the administration at that point in time."

Both Democrats say they would like to be able to support their president, who believes Assad must pay a price for using chemical weapons against his people. And they both also want to make sure they have the most up-to-date and complete information before casting what could prove to be one of the most critical votes to date.

Maine's senior senator, Republican Susan Collins - who says she has many reservations about American intervention - is also hearing from plenty of Maine residents opposed to the war. But she says there are other options available to the United States.

"This is not a choice between doing nothing and doing a military strike," Collins says. "There are other ways to put pressure internationally on the Assad regime to isolate him that might be more effective, and would not involve the use of military action."

Staffers for Independent Maine Sen. Angus King say calls against intervention make up the vast majority of Mainers opinions on the issue. But while other delegation members worry about the consequences of any U.S. military action, King remains just as concerned over the possible consequences of inaction.

"The administration has made a powerful case that doing nothing puts us at risk for future uses of chemical weapons, even future uses of nuclear weapons," King says.

"I think the statement that people want more information is a legitimate one. I think that that's understandable and the president himself said, 'I want this to be something people talk about and debate,'" says University of Maine Farmington Political Science Professor Jim Melcher.

Melcher says that while Maine's congressional delegation finds itself bombarded by numerous messages of opposition against American intervention in Syria, those positions reflect a disproportionate intensity. He says those who disagree with the use of military force are much more likely to let the delegation know than those who favor such action.

In addition to constituent concerns, Melcher says the delegation must resolve other difficult questions, such as: Will the Al Qaeda supported Syrian rebels they're trying to help today become America's enemies tomorrow? And with the revelation this week that the Syrian rebels executed unarmed government soldiers, Melcher says Maine's delegation members may be asking themselves whether the tactics of the Syrian government are really any worse than those of the rebels.

"Some of the recent information about them has not exactly made them look very good in American eyes," he says.

President Obama is expected to address the nation Tuesday on Syria, and Congress could vote on the intervention issue next week.


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