My final White House pool report: Inside the Cabinet Room as President Obama meets with congressional leaders on Syria

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President Obama meets with a bipartisan delegation of congressional leaders. (White House pool photo by Rick Dunham)

On my final day at the Houston Chronicle, I was fortunate enough to have White House pool duty, where I witnessed up close the debate over possible military action against Syria. Here is the pool report I filed to fellow reporters:

In-town Pool Report #1

Meeting with Congressional Leaders, Pool Spray

Tuesday,  September 3

With the Obama administration ramping up its efforts to persuade Congress (and the American people) to back a resolution supporting a U.S. military response in Syria, President Obama met with a bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers in the Cabinet Room.

A tight pool got a glimpse inside at the top of the meeting. (Check TV video for more precise quotes and more atmospherics.)

The President was seated between House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, on his left, and House Speaker John Boehner, on his right. Flanking Pelosi were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Eliot Engel. Flanking Boehner were National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Sen. Bob Menendez.

Vice President Joe Biden sat directly across the table from the President. The VP brushed his fingers across his temples and held his hands clased in front of his mouth as the President spoke.

Secretary of State John Kerry, seated at one end of the table next to Rep. Engel, sat with his hands clasped in front of his chin.

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John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi flanked President Obama at the White House this morning, then endorsed action against Syria. (Pool photo by Rick Dunham)

White House press secretary Jay Carney stood behind Kerry.

The congressional leaders sat without expression throughout the President’s six minutes of public remarks.

President Obama began speaking at 9:52 a.m. EDT, summarizing his case that Syria “should be held to account” for what he said was clear evidence of chemical weapons use.

“I made a clear decision that America should take action, ” he said.

He then addressed the congressional leaders,  calling for hearings and a “prompt vote” on a Syria resolution.

“The key point that I want to emphasize to the American people,” President Obama said in the take-away quote (check transcript for accuracy): “It is proportional,  it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground.  This is not Iraq. Thos is not Afghanistan. This is a clear proportional response…”

The President responded to one question,  saying the U.S. “will be more effective” if Congress approves a resolution. President Obama said “I’m confident” Congress will act.

The pool was ushered out at 9:58 as the President twice said, “Thank you, guys.”

 He then started the meeting by saying “good to see you, Buck” to Rep. Buck McKeon.

 Other lawmakers in attendance were Sens. John Cornyn, Bob Corker and Carl Levin, plus Reps. Kevin McCarthy,  Ed Royce, Dutch Ruppersberger.

White House reps also included Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, James Clapper, General Martin Dempsey, Rob Nabors, Ben Rhodes, Miguel Rodriguez,  Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, per pool wranglers.

 Some of the lawmakers may speak at the stakeout after the meeting. Open press.

The lawmakers -- and the camera people -- had left the White House stakeout point when I decided to give farewell remarks. (Photo by Sarah Ferris)

The lawmakers — and the camera people — had left the White House stakeout point when I decided to give farewell remarks. (Photo by Sarah Ferris)

 On a personal note,  today is my final day with the Houston Chronicle. I am heading to Beijing tomorrow to teach multimedia journalism and run the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University’s graduate school of journalism. It has been an honor and privilege to cover the White House for most of the past 29 years.

I’d like to salute the hard-working White House correspondents who strive for transparency, access and information. And I’d like to wish Godspeed to President Obama, my (very) distant cousin on the Dunham side. My grandfather Barrows Dunham and President Obama were both known as Barry to their schoolmates,  but the comparisons end there.

Good luck to all!

Rick Dunham

Houston Chronicle

rickdunham@aol.com

rickdunham1@gmail.com

RickDunhamBlog.com



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