September 4, 2013

The consensus emerging from the media coverage today is that Congressional passage of authorization for the use of force in Syria has grown somewhat more likely. This seems more true in the Senate than in the House, where its prospects remain far less certain.

If Congress does get to Yes on Syria, it won’t be hard to see why. What’s happening here is that Congress is being given a way to rein in the White House on Syria without saying No to authorizing the punitive strikes the Obama administration wants to launch.

Today, the President and the White House will very likely weigh in on the latest turn in the debate, providing more clues to where it’s headed.

Lawmakers in both houses of Congress have introduced new versions of the Syria resolution that contain far stricter limits on Obama’s authority than the previous resolution offered by the White House. The version introduced by House Dems is here; the one introduced by a bipartisan group of Senators is here. Both stipulate no ground troops will be deployed and both limit force to 60 days (the Senate version allows one 30-day extension). The House version explicitly limits strikes to retaliation against use of chemical weapons, as opposed to broader efforts to degrade the Syrian military. The two versions probably won’t be hard to mesh.

You can probably expect Obama and/or the White House to say generally positive things about these resolutions today, thus signaling a willingness to limit the mission in keeping with what Congress wants.

Ultimately what this will do is give those members of Congress who appear inclined to support the general need for action against Assad a way to argue to constituents that they have placed substantial limits on the White House’s authority to wage war. Members of Congress were shocked by the broadness of the White House’s initial request for authority, but — whether by mistake or by design — it has given Congress a way to appear to be taking action to place tight limits on Obama’s warmaking authority.

This will be widely seen as kabuki, and to a great degree, that’s what it is. But it’s also going to be clarifying. Now members of Congress will be forced to take a stand on whether they support the basic idea that limited strikes will actually have an impact in deterring further use of chemical weapons by Assad and on whether the advertised upsides of limited strikes really outweigh the multiple risks — including many more civilian deaths — associated with them. The public is highly skeptical. Despite all the noise coming out of Congress, the true nature of Congressional opinion remains unclear.

* OBAMA FACES TOUGH SELL WITH PUBLIC: The Post has a remarkable account detailing how members of Congress are facing an extraordinary level of skepticism from their constituents about punitive strikes on Syria. What’s striking is the degree to which Americans seem unwilling to accept the argument that strikes won’t lead to deeper involvement or that they will do anything more than make an abstract point.

Polls indicate Americans are convinced of Assad’s guilt in using chemical weapons; whether it’s due to war weariness, a more sophisticated public or other factors, they are not persuaded punitive strikes are the answer.

* ON SYRIA, SOME REPUBLICANS OPPOSE ANYTHING OBAMA DOES: Dana Milbank has a good column recapping shifting GOP responses to Obama’s posture on Syria, suggesting that they are motivated mainly by opposition to the President and nothing more:

Some protested when Obama threatened to bomb Syria without congressional approval; others then criticized him for seeking congressional approval. They complain that Obama’s use-of-force resolution is too broad; they argue that it would amount to only a “pinprick.” They assert that he should have intervened long ago; they say that he has not yet made the case for intervening. They told him not to go to the United Nations; they scolded him for not pursuing multilateral action. They told him to arm the rebels and, when he did, they said he had done it too late and with insufficient firepower.

Meanwhile, as noted here yesterday, some Republicans are making their opposition to Obama’s proposed intervention about his alleged incompetence, an apparent effort to dodge debate over the proposal itself.

* GOP SCORCHED EARTH TACTICS  SET TO COLLIDE WITH SYRIA DEBATE: A good point from Harold Meyerson here: How will Congressional Republicans manage to spark a government shutdown and/or debt limit fight in the middle of a war debate?

The coming collision of libertarian fantasies with reality will be instructive. Can a congressman vote to defund the government and approve a military action in the same month? Or vote to authorize cruise missile attacks while insisting the government default on its debts? All these issues will soon come before Congress in rapid succession.

Theoretically, the Syria debate should provide John Boehner with a temporary escape hatch from the mess he’s landed in, thanks to the conservative drive for shutdown and/or debt limit confrontations.

* WILL BOEHNER BREAK ‘HASTERT RULE’ ON SYRIA? CQ Roll Call asks the question, and gets the answer:

A House GOP leadership aide told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday: “Given the Constitutional requirements, and the fact that so many of our members have asked for a vote, I can’t imagine it would be an issue.”

If a Syria resolution is going to pass the House it will be with large numbers of Republicans and Dems, since big blocs in both parties will likely oppose it. So if this has to happen with mostly Dems, the “Hastert Rule” (which we already know is fiction) won’t get in the way.

* A BIT MORE MOVEMENT ON IMMIGRATION? The Miami Herald reports that Florida Tea Party Rep. Steve Southerland is now saying immigration must be addressed, and treated as a “moral issue,” and is signaling openness to citizenship or legalization for the DREAMers. While that is a far cry from supporting citizenship for the 11 million, the thing to watch for to gauge whether reform has any chance is House Republicans, particularly conservatives, who recognize the issue must be dealt with.

* BUSH FAMILY GEARS UP ON IMMIGRATION REFORM: The New York Times reports that the Bushes — Jeb and his two sons — are planning to mount a push this fall to sell immigration reform, which they see as a legacy item (albeit an uncompleted one) of George W. This from former Bush One strategist John Weaver is key: “If the House effectively kills comprehensive immigration reform this cycle, we’ll be set back for generations, if not longer.”

If immigration dies, it will be because House Republicans killed it, and as Hispanic media figures make clear, Latinos will perceive it this way, too.

 * AND THE HISTORY LESSON OF THE DAY, CHEMICAL WEAPONS EDITION: Glenn Kessler provides it: During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, even as the Reagan administration knew Iraq was using chemical weapons, the U.S. was supplying materials to help manufacture them. Fair or not, this sort of legacy makes it harder to get people to accept the notion that use of them constitutes some kind of unacceptable moral red line for the U.S.

What else?

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