Right now, the number of House Republicans planning to back the Syria resolution is stuck at about two dozen, according to the unofficial count several aides are keeping. “We’re not counting for the conference, but some of us are keeping tallies, and it’s looking horrible,” says a source within the leadership’s circle. “I’d say 30 to 40 Republicans, at most, are privately supportive.”
In the coming days, insiders say, the number could tick up or down. Any fluctuation, however, will be based almost entirely on how the top players influence their colleagues. Since the leadership isn’t formally whipping, member-to-member consultation is critical — and the following Republicans are jostling behind the scenes to shape the cloakroom debate.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.)
Cantor is coordinating the effort to boost Republican support. Ever since he endorsed a military strike, in a statement last week, he has been working the phones and softly selling the merits of intervention. Last Wednesday, he participated in a conference call with House GOP freshmen in which he outlined his position and analyzed the Syrian crisis. One Republican who is opposed tells me the call was “instructive, candid, and may have changed a few minds.” A day later, Cantor invited Eric Edelman and Stephen Hadley, two former advisers from George W. Bush’s administration, to brief Republican staffers. And on Friday, Cantor published an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. His pitch: Syria is more than a civil war; it’s a proxy war for Iran that demands engagement.
“I think the majority leader has been instrumental,” says Representative Richard Hudson, an undecided freshman from North Carolina. “That op-ed was important to me because I was looking to see and read more from our leadership. Stephen Hadley’s perspective has also had some bearing on me.”
Look for Cantor to keep making this case, even though the leadership has no official position. For the past few years, he has made foreign policy, particularly Middle East issues, a priority, and his aides say he’s comfortable taking on a larger role in shepherding talks among Republicans. Last month, he visited Israel, where he stood on the Syrian border and could hear the rumble of battle in the distance. His commitment to the cause makes him a force — and the White House’s best ambassador to wary conservatives.
Speaker John Boehner (Ohio)
Boehner, like Cantor, is supportive of the president’s proposal, but he has been more hands-off in dealing with House Republicans than the majority leader has. He announced his position after last week’s White House meeting, but since then he hasn’t wooed rank-and-file members or published any op-eds, and he has declined every Sunday-show invitation. Boehner’s aides say the speaker believes that the pressure is on the president and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to deliver votes, and he’s focused almost entirely on keeping his fragile conference together ahead of the fall’s fiscal dramas.
“There’s no whip list since this is a conscience vote, and the speaker is acting accordingly,” says an aide familiar with Boehner’s strategy. “He’s going to come back this week and spend a lot of time listening to his members.”
But Boehner’s reluctance to say much publicly doesn’t mean he’s absent from the discussion. His first vote in Congress, after being elected in 1990, was to authorize the Gulf War, and he has long been a hawk. Sources close to him say he’ll try to bolster GOP support without strong-arming anyone. Case in point: His staff is advising White House chief of staff Denis McDonough about what the president needs to say on Tuesday to win Republican votes.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.)
McCarthy is still undecided, and guessing how he’ll vote is a favorite parlor game of House staffers. McCarthy often sides with Cantor on policy matters, so it’s unusual for him to be openly unaligned and uncertain as the third-ranking Republican.
McCarthy is reportedly unconvinced by the White House’s pitch for military involvement. His confidants say his discomfort reflects the stance of many in the House GOP’s younger bloc, most of whom were elected amid tumult in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade. Those members, McCarthy included, have been molded by the their constituents’ war-weariness. “Kevin has been getting the same overwhelming number of negative calls about Syria as the rest of us have,” says a House member who is close with McCarthy. “I don’t think he’s rattled by the calls, but his political antennae sense danger.”
“I’m right with McCarthy in that undecided category,” says Representative Phil Gingrey (R., Ga.). “When I sat there at the classified briefing on Friday, nothing I heard really changed my mind. I remain very concerned, and my constituents in the eleventh district are very much opposed to this. We’re all concerned about the domino effect, should we go in there and do this. I’m also concerned about the evidence on the chemical weapons; I’m still unsure.”
McCarthy, though, isn’t expected to make a splashy break with Boehner and Cantor on Syria. Instead, he’ll probably keep a low profile and function as a neutral adviser to members, providing them with educational materials and legislative updates. Working with his deputy whips, he’ll also keep Boehner and Cantor apprised of the conference’s pulse. He might end up as a “no” vote, but he doesn’t want to be cast as a dove.