President Obama got the support of top House leaders Tuesday, but still has his work cut out for him to win an outright majority in the chamber.
Minutes after Speaker John Boehner announced his support, in fact, his spokesman called the pending vote an “uphill battle” and put the onus on the president to secure the votes.
Back home, lawmakers are hearing an earful from angry constituents who oppose action in Syria, which is reflected in polls showing significant majorities against the idea.
Opposition is building both on the conservative wing of the party, with Heritage Action blasting a release to lawmakers questioning intervention in Syria, and among Gulf War hawks like John Bolton and Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom indicated their opposition Tuesday.
Despite Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s support, the House’s No. 3 Republican, Kevin McCarthy, is keeping his options open, saying he is weighing the question. A key reason behind his indecision is that the text of the authorizing resolution has not been settled, McCarthy’s aides say. At this point, key GOP aides aren’t even sure which committees will mark up the authorization or what amendments are on the table, let alone what the resolution’s final form will be.
The draft authorization sent up by the White House does not include any substantive limitations on the scope of military action in Syria. The only limitation of any kind is that the president’s use of force must be “in connection with the use of chemical weapons in the conflict in Syria” — as determined by the president.
That prompted Democratic representative Brad Sherman of California to write colleagues urging them to help him amend the resolution to include limitations on the duration of action and a prohibition on the use of ground forces.
“Whether you support the President’s call for limited use of force in Syria, or are opposed to any military force, we should not simply consider and vote on the text submitted by the President. While the action the President has proposed is only in the air for a short duration, the text he has proposed is unlimited. In fact, it would authorize boots-on-the-ground for an undetermined duration. Accordingly, we should consider amendments, including those that limit the scope and duration of the authorization,” Sherman wrote.
In addition to their policy concerns, Republicans are also eyeing the politics. There is a widespread belief on the Hill that Obama’s decision was not related to any qualms he had about his legal authority to shoot missiles at Assad. After all, this is a president who has aggressively stretched the law, at times even going ahead with actions he once publicly declared illegal.
Instead, Obama is seen as wanting to share the political risk of action with Congress, and some Republicans even speculate he would like Congress to shoot down the idea, offering him a way out of a promise he didn’t want to keep. (Obama, it should be noted, has said he requested congressional approval because it will make the U.S. “stronger” and its actions “more effective.”)
If the House does vote down the Syria resolution, another GOP aide notes, “the president would look weak,” which, in a cynical political calculus, would be good for the GOP. But at what cost? “It’s not just this president. It’s the office of the presidency,” the aide says.
Aides say the dynamics of the vote are likely to resemble the July vote on Representative Justin Amash’s amendment to prohibit the National Security Agency from collecting data on millions of Americans who aren’t under investigation.
The Democratic Progressive Caucus was by far the group most likely to vote for the Amash amendment — a full 81 percent of them. In total, 55 percent of Democrats voted for it.
The vote split the Democratic leadership team, with minority leader Nancy Pelosi, whip Steny Hoyer, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel, and Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen opposed (the position taken by the president).
Further down the totem pole, Democratic Caucus chairman Xavier Becerra, vice chairman Joe Crowley, and Marcia Fudge, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, all broke from Obama and voted for the amendment, as did several of Pelosi’s closest confidants, including George Miller, Rosa DeLauro, and Anna Eshoo.
With the Syria vote, a Democratic president is imploring his House colleagues to help bail him out, but the Amash amendment shows a distinct willingness by House Democrats to leave their president out in the cold on foreign policy.
Among the House GOP, 40 percent voted for the Amash amendment. A higher percentage of the Republican Study Committee, the House’s conservative caucus, voted for it (45 percent), and that share almost doubled the rate of support from non-RSC Republicans (24 percent).
The Amash amendment failed by only twelve votes. Now, some of the Republicans who voted “no” on the Amash amendment — the same group who are expected to be more likely to vote “yes” on a Syria resolution — have already indicated their opposition on Syria, meaning that the numbers, at this point, may be tilting against passage.
There’s still time for Obama to save his Syria plan, but the situation in the House looks dire.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.