September 3, 2013

House Speaker John Boehner just announced that he will support Obama’s request for Congressional authorization for the use of force in Syria. “I’m going to support the president’s call to action,” Boehner said. Eric Cantor agrees. It remains unclear whether majorities in Congress will go along, but that’s a big step forward for the President.

Boehner’s announcement brings up another element to all of this: The war debate actually gives the House Speaker a way out of the big mess he’d expected to find himself in this fall, thanks to conservative demands for a series of epic confrontations over Obamacare and the debt limit.

Here’s why: There are only nine legislative days from when Congress returns until funding of the government runs out on September 30th, which is to say, there are only nine days for Congress to pass a continuing resolution, or CR, temporarily funding the government at current levels.

Obviously, the Congressional debate over Syria will consume some of that time. And the war debate allows Boehner to argue that the battle over funding the government — and perhaps over the debt limit, too, since the borrowing limit will likely be hit in mid-October — should be postponed in order to allow Congress to resolve the debate over Syria, and possibly while military actions commence. Boehner — who opposes a government shutdown fight to defund Obamacare, and has admitted the debt limit must be raised, but has only angered conservatives further in the process — can argue that this is a matter of war and peace that must be dealt with first.

“It is his escape hatch,” Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein told me by phone today. “The case he can make is, `We can’t possibly deal with all of these fiscal issues in the time we have left in September until everything falls apart, when we have the most important thing we have to do before us, debating over war and peace. We’ll take fiscal issues up later with a vengeance, but now Syria is our first priority.’”

If Boehner took this route, the question then would be how long a temporary reprieve Boehner seeks on funding the government and on the debt limit, and how that is received by conservative Republicans.

If Boehner doesn’t take this route, or if he does and there is substantial GOP resistance to it, the question then becomes: How do Republicans propose to debate and vote on Syria and debate and vote on funding the government before the end of September?

Meanwhile, Ornstein suggested another possibility, though it seems unlikely at best: what if some Republicans inject the debate over Obamacare and funding the government into the argument over Syria?

“It’s not likely that anyone will do that,” Ornstein said. “But is it beyond imagining that in some of these negotiations, someone says, `We really want to go with you on the war issue, but our constituents are against it, You want your resolution on Syria? How about [delaying or defunding] Obamacare?’”

“That would have been unthinkable a few years ago,” Ornstein concluded. “But now, nothing is unthinkable.”

In truth, that does seem highly unlikely, but I suppose you never know. The key thing to watch for now is how House conservatives react if Boehner and House GOP leaders make the eminently reasonable point that we shouldn’t be having a government shutdown fight in the middle of a debate over whether to go to war.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.