With the politics complicated and the country war-weary, President Barack Obama faces a heavy lift in winning congressional authorization to enforce his “red line” and launch a military response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
The Senate will begin hearings on Tuesday and plans to vote on authorization the week of Sept. 9. The House is poised to consider a measure the same week. Obama has already begun lobbying lawmakers in support of the resolution. He plans to meet Monday with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — both strong advocates for intervening in the Syria civil war to assist the rebellion — to discuss the issue.
Early indications are that lawmakers are open to supporting the effort but aren’t yet persuaded. The Democratic-led Senate is likely to be a less difficult sell than the often-erratic, unpredictable Republican-controlled House.The partisan fault lines are unusually scrambled, both parties full of members for and against military action as punishment against the regime of Bashar al-Assad for what the administration says was a sarin gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21. Many Democrats and Republicans want more clarity from the White House on the nature of the military response and have sought a resolution that is limited and not open-ended. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said the White House resolution would be amended in the upper chamber, according to Politico.
Republicans are deeply divided between pro-intervention hawks and a growing chorus of isolationists. The internal GOP fight is already heated, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) leading the opposition and Rep. Peter King (R-NY) saying the “isolationist wing” was “damaging to the party and to our nation.”
While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) are supportive of President Obama’s call for action, Democrats in general are wary of getting mired in yet another Middle East conflict like Afghanistan or Iraq. They’re more likely to be supportive if they’re persuaded that the Syria mission will more closely resemble the limited late-1990s U.S. intervention in Kosovo.
House Republicans in particular face a variety of competing pressures. On the one hand is historical deference to the executive branch on matters of war and U.S. credibility in vowing not to let al-Assad get away with alleged use of chemical weapons. Forces working against the mission include the public’s skepticism, opposition from the GOP’s rising isolationist faction, and conservatives’ distrust of virtually anything President Obama does.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a deputy majority whip and close ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), warned that the administration had “better make a whale of a case or I think they’re very much in danger, certainly in the House, of losing this” vote, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“The President is going to have to make the case to Congress, and — more importantly — the American people, if he wants this resolution to pass,” a House Republican leadership aide told TPM. “And the White House is going to have to answer the serious questions raised by the Speaker and others.”
While it is difficult to envision Obama acting without congressional approval, the administration is leaving that door open. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that while the country would be stronger if Congress OKs the mission, the President “has the right” to act regardless.