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.
Representatives Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.)
Cotton, age 36, and Kinzinger, age 35, are both charismatic military veterans with growing clout. They’re also leading the Republican push among freshmen and sophomores to authorize force against Bashar Assad. Last week, Cotton organized his own conference calls with younger members, including frequent critics of the leadership, who wanted to hear the pro-war case from a fellow tea-party conservative. Kinzinger, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a favorite of the leadership, garnered headlines when he went after Senator Ted Cruz of Texas for saying that U.S. military personnel in Syria could end up serving as “al-Qaeda’s air force.” Kinzinger called it a “cheap line.”
Cotton and Kinzinger have provided friends in the House with information and insights on Syria. Late last week, Cotton and Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas, another Army veteran, co-wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about why Republicans, even if they don’t trust the president’s judgment, should support military action. “Congress shouldn’t guarantee a bad outcome for our country because of fears that the president will execute an imperfect military campaign,” they wrote. A conservative aide tells me the op-ed has been passed around “like the Jerry Maguire memo.”
Look for both Cotton and Kinzinger (as well as Pompeo) to speak up on Tuesday morning when House Republicans hold their first post-recess conference meeting. If they can move even a handful of their colleagues toward a “yes” vote, it could mean the difference between passage and failure.
Representative Peter King (N.Y.)
King returns to Washington, D.C., this week as the best-known hawk in the House. Rhetorically and in terms of press attention, he’s the lower chamber’s version of Senator John McCain of Arizona — a frank, outspoken, and media-savvy operator, but one with limited means of corralling votes. Nevertheless, King has an important role because he adds flair and oomph to the more subdued maneuvers of Cantor, Boehner, Cotton, and Kinzinger. He also commands the respect of the House GOP’s old bulls and Northeast moderates.
In an interview, King tells me he’s gearing up for a range of activities intended to stoke Republican support, from TV appearances to huddling with undecided members. “I’ve held off on calling people during the break, since people are busy with their districts, but I’ve set up some face-to-face meetings,” King says. “This isn’t going to be a lobbying effort, per se, because of the nature of the vote and how it’s being handled by the leadership. But I am trying to build a consensus on the overall policy that we need to pursue and trying to combat the isolationists in our party.”
King cautions that though he may be able to sway a few members, it’s up to the president to close the deal with House Republicans. “I don’t know how he gets there unless he starts to seriously talk about the threat to U.S. interests, and at this stage, winning over people won’t be easy,” he says. “There’s a lot of frustration generally with the president and how he has handled Syria. His speech [in Sweden] last week about the red line and Congress didn’t help him.”
Representative Devin Nunes (Calif.)
Nunes, a member of the House’s right flank who is opposed to military intervention, is working with Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is also opposed, to urge Congress to pursue a diplomatic response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Nunes, like McCarthy, comes from a Western district that’s deeply skeptical of the president, but he doesn’t want to ignore the civil war. Rather, he’d like the administration to come up with a long-term diplomatic strategy for the whole region. He and Manchin both hope that anti-war Democrats and conservative critics can jointly seek a third way on Syria.
Republican hawks are worried that the Nunes-Manchin proposal could peel away support for a strike, but no one knows at this point how much support their proposed resolution might garner. In the meantime, keep an eye on Nunes as he works the halls of the Capitol. If his plan gathers steam with conservatives, it could kill the White House’s hopes of winning an authorization for war. House Democrats, who are hardly rushing to support a strike, could be tempted to sign on, and House Republicans would be able to tell constituents that they have a plan to deal with Assad, even though they’re not for war. “If Obama’s resolution is defeated, you may see members from both parties rally behind this kind of legislation,” predicts one House Republican aide.
Representatives Justin Amash (Mich.) and Thomas Massie (Ky.)
Massie and Amash, two former Ron Paul supporters who are now young anti-war congressmen, are the libertarian counters to Cotton and Kinzinger. They’re also the liaisons in the House for Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul plans to meet with both of them this week as he looks to foment opposition to Boehner and Cantor. A breakfast hosted by Paul for his conservative House partners — Amash, Massie, Scott Garrett (N.J.), Kerry Bentivolio (Mich.), among others — is already in the works.
The duo doesn’t represent the majority view of the GOP on foreign policy, but their fierce statements have permeated the House’s internal debate on Syria and fed into the widespread indecision in the conference. They had a similar impact this past July when Amash nearly passed his amendment to curb the National Security Agency’s surveillance capabilities. “The Paul wing isn’t dominating, but it’s certainly scoring points,” says an Amash ally.
Amash and Massie will be a headache for both the GOP leadership and the White House as the Syria resolution moves forward. Both men were involved in the attempted coup against Boehner earlier this year, and they have no reservations about calling out the speaker. They’re also popular with many of the Right’s anti-war activists — the same activists who are calling members in droves and causing even the hawks to grow leery. If they gain traction, the chances for passage will shrink.
Representative Mike Rogers (Mich.)
Rogers, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, is being counted on by the GOP’s hawks to quietly whip his Republican committee members to fall in line behind a Syria resolution. The leadership also hopes that this powerful chairman can function as an emissary for Boehner and Cantor’s position, since the leadership, due to the nature of a “conscience vote,” can say only so much.
Members say Rogers has spoken during recent phone calls about the gravity of the chemical-weapons attacks and the need for stability in the region. He’s expected to host more meetings this week. But no one is ready to say he’ll be able to win a host of converts. An aide close to the committee say Rogers was more optimistic a week ago that Republicans would come his way, but now he has told his confidants that he’s not so sure. “Since this isn’t a Republican initiative or a black-and-white war, it’s been hard,” the aide says. “He thinks the president sent this to Congress then walked away without putting in the time to actually get it through.”
“The credibility gap there is huge,” Rogers said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. “They need to regroup here, think about where they want to go, and make this about America’s national security. . . . It has been a confusing mess up to this point and that, I think, has been their biggest challenge.”
Representative Buck McKeon (Calif.)
McKeon, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, understands the need to take action in Syria, but he differs from Rogers in that he wants to cut a deal with the White House on sequestration before committing to “aye.” Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, McKeon reiterated that unless the White House puts on the table a restoration of funding for several sequester-related defense cuts, he’ll continue to sit on his hands.
“It’s a tragedy all the way around,” McKeon said. “It’s immoral to be using chemical weapons, obviously, against your own people. By the same token, I’m concerned about the morality of sending our own troops into harm’s way without providing for the things they need. . . . We’re asking them to do more with less.”
McKeon’s view isn’t widely shared by Republicans outside of defense-heavy districts, but it’s influential because he is a leading hawk and he is not helping Boehner and Cantor build Republican support for the resolution. That makes the job of King, Rogers, and the other interventionists more difficult. In the middle of a war debate, McKeon wants to have a debate about the military budget. If more Republicans take McKeon’s tack, it will further hamper the resolution’s chances.
Representatives Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Tom Price (Ga.)
Ryan and Price, chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the House Budget Committee — and good friends — are two of the most influential names in House conservative politics. The former was just on the national ticket as Mitt Romney’s running mate, and the latter is a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus. They also remain undecided and haven’t weighed in on Syria beyond terse statements. Other undecided conservatives will closely watch how they break on Syria. An endorsement of action from either could shift momentum toward the hawks.
But continued indecision or eventual opposition from Ryan, Price, and the dozens of other House Republicans like them could cripple the resolution before it even hits the House floor. House aides say more than 100 Republicans remain undecided, but it will be up to the White House, more than Boehner and company, to get enough of them for passage.
“I know Denis McDonough is working the Senate, but we need to see more on our side,” says the leadership source. “The White House isn’t doing enough. If they can’t get it together soon, this thing will go down.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.