Tallying the House Vote on Syria
“It’s looking horrible” for the president’s move against Assad.

Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor


Robert Costa

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.