MIDWEST CITY — U.S. Rep. Tom Cole said Tuesday during his last town hall meeting of the summer that he was leaning toward voting against military action in Syria but wanted to hear what his constituents think.
The feedback he got was unequivocal — not one person at the meeting supported military intervention. Cole, R-Moore, listened for more than three hours to those who filled the Rose State College Professional Training Center, answering every person who had a question.
Cole took several questions early on the Syria issue and made clear he disagrees with some of the Republican House leaders who have come out in support of military action.
“There is no compelling American security issue there,” Cole said. “At this point, why we would go in there is beyond me. You can waste a lot of blood and treasure in these things. We should be the first to know.”
Steve Byas, of Norman, and several others who spoke on the issue expressed frustration that President Barack Obama essentially proclaimed the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad a “red line.”
“Just because the president made a statement he shouldn't have made does not bind Congress,” Byas said to applause.
Cole said he does not doubt intelligence showing Assad's forces have used chemical weapons on civilians.
He said the situation in the country is awful, but he is concerned by the lack of a viable partner in trying to oust Assad.
“It's hard to find the good guys,” Cole said.
Cole said the countries that are fighting a proxy war in Syria such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, likely will come to regret it, and he doesn't want the United States getting involved.
Cole said he expects a vote on the issue early next week. He applauded Obama for seeking congressional support for military action, one of the few nice things said about the president all night by anyone.
The strongest criticism of Cole came when the discussion turned to the budget and Republican attempts to defund Obamacare. Some Republican members of the House have suggested they won't vote for continuing budget resolutions to keep the government running later this month unless there is a deal to roll back the president's health care initiative.
Cole said he voted against Obamacare and voted 40 times to repeal, reduce or delay it. But he does not want to shut the government down over the issue.
“I don't think it would work first of all,” Cole said. “It would also hurt a lot of good people.”
If the government is shut down, military members won't get paid and veterans' centers will close, Cole said.
Politically, Cole said he thinks the strategy would backfire, strengthening the president's position and turning voters in swing states against Republicans.
Cole said the House can chip away at Obamacare, but Republicans are going to have to win the issue at the election box.
“We're in the position to stop a lot of what he's doing, but we're not in the position to undo it until we have the patience and discipline to win multiple elections.”
Cole also heard from several frustrated Tinker employees who took furlough days because of the sequester budget cuts that took effect this year.
One man, who did not want to give his name, told Cole the federal employees being hurt by the cuts are tired of constant uncertainty about their jobs.
“I don't know what you are hearing from the leadership at Tinker, but morale out there is really low,” he said. “People are going to start leaving for other jobs.”
Cole blamed Obama for the situation. He said he is hopeful leaders from both sides can negotiate a solution that will prioritize the sequester cuts to keep Tinker employees from having to take furlough days next year.
“If we do get to a big deal, I guarantee you there will be stuff in it everyone doesn't like,” Cole said. “That's what it means to make a deal.”
Cole tried to explain to several upset questioners that the House can't unilaterally push its priorities into law when the Senate and presidency are controlled by Democrats. He also brushed off calls to impeach Obama and disagreed with a questioner who said the country had turned into a socialist state.
“California is 10 Oklahomas on the electoral map,” Cole said. “New York is five. Those people are as passionate about what they believe as the people in this room.”