WASHINGTON (AP) — White House officials have been holding private meetings this week aimed at soothing lawmakers' concerns over the U.S. posture in Syria, the future of the American military presence in Afghanistan and defense spending. The meetings come as a frustrated White House seeks to push back at criticism of President Barack Obama's foreign policy.
But the White House outreach appeared to be having little effect on some lawmakers' concerns.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described Tuesday night's White House meeting with chief of staff Denis McDonough and national security adviser Susan Rice as "one of the most bizarre I've attended."
Another senator who attended the meeting said Obama's advisers refused to provide lawmakers with answers about whether the president plans to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the war formally concludes later this year or about the Pentagon's efforts to find nearly 300 kidnapped Nigerian school girls.
Unsatisfied, some of the lawmakers started to leave one by one before the meeting had finished. The senator and three congressional aides briefed on the meeting insisted on anonymity to discuss the private talks.
Asked about Corker's assertion that Tuesday's meeting was "bizarre," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday, "I don't know what he's referring to."
The meetings, which have been taking place both at the White House and on Capitol Hill, come as Obama prepares for a speech Wednesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where he is expected to try to answer critics who say he has surrendered America's global leadership and faltered on problems in the Middle East, Russia, China and beyond.
McDonough and Rice met at the White House on Monday night with about a dozen House Democrats. On Tuesday, officials invited 14 senators — three of them were Republicans — to the White House for a discussion on foreign policy over wine, beer and a cheese and cracker platter on the patio outside of McDonough's office.
The chief of staff was also on Capitol Hill on Tuesday for a foreign policy-focused meeting with the full House. He met with the full Senate on Thursday, though national security took a backseat in that discussion to economic issues.
Among the Democrats who attended the Tuesday meeting were New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Michigan Sen. Carl Levin and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed. The three Republicans who attended were Corker, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Maine Sen. Susan Collins.
A White House official said six Republicans were invited to the meeting, but half did not attend.
The president did not drop by the White House meeting, surprising the senators. White House officials cast the meetings as part of their effort to step up engagement with lawmakers who long have complained about feeling out of the loop regarding the president's decision-making.
In another sign of the White House's uphill climb to sway lawmakers, the House voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of a $601 billion defense authorization bill that Obama has threatened to veto. McDonough had used his discussions with Democrats to try to persuade them to reject the measure, which authorizes spending on weapons and personnel for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. It also limits Obama's handling of terror suspects at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, barring him from transferring detainees to maximum-security prisons in the United States.
In a rare win for Obama, the Democratic-led Senate Armed Services Committee completed its version of the defense bill Thursday that gives the president conditional authority to close Guantanamo, contingent on congressional approval.
The panel, however, also would authorize the Defense Department to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels battling forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, certain to cause consternation in the White House.
Midway through his sixth year in office, Obama has been showing signs of frustration with the way his foreign policy has been viewed by critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. During a news conference in the Philippines last month, he pushed back at those who said his cautious response to the Syrian civil war and Russia's threatening moves in Ukraine has weakened the U.S.
"You hit singles, you hit doubles. Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run," Obama said. "But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world."
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.
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