Obama goes to the Hill; complications ensue

September 10, 2013

I took a trip yesterday to the Hill, and today filed this report:

It’s a free-for-all on Capitol Hill. The usual polarization, the simple calculus of R vs. D, has been blown up by the Syria issue. As President Obama seeks authorization to strike the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons, he’s looking for support anywhere he can find it on the political spectrum — even on the fringes.

He could use a “yes” vote, for example, from Rep. Trent Franks, the Arizona Republican and tea party favorite. Here’s Franks, in a subterranean corridor, emerging Monday night from a high-level briefing on Syria:

“It just seems that everything the president touches in foreign policy, he injects it with chaos and death.”So, not an Obama fan. The “chaos and death” phrase is one Franks uses a lot (“I know that sounds partisan, but the record reflects it,” he said, almost apologetically). But he also abhors the Syrian regime. Conundrum: One instinct says to hit Syria hard, and the other says to do the opposite of whatever Obama wants. Franks said he’s “undeclared” on how he’ll vote. Undecided? No, just undeclared. He wouldn’t even confirm that he’s made up his mind.This is an unusual Washington moment, completely unscripted, with few if any precedents in recent memory. The situation changes by the hour. The Russian overture — an offer to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control — further scrambled any sense of where this is leading. Obama will address the nation in a prime-time broadcast Tuesday night in an attempt to sell his Syria policy to a skeptical citizenry.

The only thing certain at this point is that a military strike against Syria would arrive with the same element of surprise as Christmas.

Decisions on war and peace are always fraught with constitutional questions, and the War Powers Resolution, passed in the 1970s after the Vietnam War, gives Congress a certain degree of authority to approve or deny the deployment of forces in war zones.

But Congress’s role is also circumscribed by that same resolution. The president has up to 90 days to take military action without seeking congressional approval, and there is always debate about when, precisely, the clock starts ticking, and what, exactly, constitutes hostilities, said Douglas Kriner, associate professor of political science at Boston University and author of “After the Rubicon: Congress, Presidents and the Politics of Waging War.”

Kriner and other historians said they can’t think of a time when a president went to Congress on a military authorization vote when the vote was very much in doubt. Obama seemed poised to order airstrikes against the Syrian government 10 days ago, but at the last moment, he shocked his aides and many allies by kicking the question to the Hill, where the president has few close friends among Democrats and where many Republican lawmakers are loath to say yes to anything the president favors.

Barring a Russian breakthrough, or some other diplomatic solution, Congress will have to do something it doesn’t like to do and hasn’t been good at doing for a long time: Make a decision.

In Washington, indecision on big matters has become a refined art. This week, for example, congressional leaders will once again deploy a favorite tool of collective indecision on the budget, the “continuing resolution,” a way of punting harder decisions until the end of the year. The sequester is already chewing through agency budgets even though most everyone who created those budget cuts agreed that they were a terrible way to trim spending. It’s just easier than making decisions on how to do that.

Obama, in effect, is forcing Congress to share the ownership, for better or worse, of American military policy toward Syria, a situation that offers no attractive options. If Congress votes yes, Obama will at least have some brothers and sisters in arms going forward. If Congress votes no, Obama will take a short-term hit to his prestige, but Congress could wind up looking worse if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons again.

If Obama had gone ahead with the military strikes in August, and they had turned out badly, then opponents in Congress would “just sit back and hammer him on it,” Kriner said. They’d have called for investigations and held hearings for the rest of Obama’s presidency, the political scientist added.

President George H.W. Bush was confident he’d win authorization to prosecute the Persian Gulf War, and he got it, though many Democrats voted against the president. President George W. Bush also knew he had the votes for the 2002 invasion of Iraq.

Vote counters believe that even if Obama prevails in the Senate, the House is unlikely to give him authorization to go ahead. Obama could potentially ignore the House, but that would be another reversal of course and most political observers consider that unlikely.

Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who skews libertarian, has threatened to filibuster the resolution in the Senate. “We will ensure that it’s a 60-vote margin,” he said as he entered a senators-only elevator on his way to the chamber. Of the possibility of Russia rounding up Syria’s chemical weapons, Paul said, “That’d be much better than bombing Assad to make him so unstable that these weapons get into the hands of terrorists.”

The whip counting is full of leaners — lean yes, lean no — as Obama and his proxies work the meeting rooms on the Hill to make their case that Assad violated an international norm. Obama went to both Senate caucuses Tuesday; his meeting with Republicans on their home turf was a rare event for this president.

“Pretty late in the administration to start making friends,” Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said late Monday.

Some members of Congress want nothing to do with the decision. They think the president should have acted straightaway rather than drawing in another branch of government.

“I think this is a circus. We ought to take a timeout,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. “This is ridiculous that they’re putting the Congress through this.”

Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican, said Obama had the power to act without congressional approval and should have done so in August.

“It was a terrible dereliction of duty,” King said. Why didn’t Obama attack Syria? “My own feeling is, he flinched.”

But many other members of Congress had asked to be looped into the decision. And the fact that the process has become messy is just the way democracy is supposed to work, said Rep. John B. Larson, a Connecticut Democrat and one of the president’s allies on the Syria issue. Liberally paraphrasing the famed Judge Learned Hand, Larson said, “Democracy and freedom is that which leaves you not too sure.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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