Why Mitch McConnell’s not John Boehner on Syria

September 3, 2013

Even as the two top-ranking Republicans in the House emerged from a meeting Tuesday with President Obama resolved to support his call for military action against the Syrian government, the Senate's top Republican wasn't convinced just yet.

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
On Syria, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has a political juggling act. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

“I appreciate the President’s briefing today at the White House and would encourage him to continue updating the American people," McConnell said in a statement after the White House meeting that included ranking members of Congress.

"While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done — and can be accomplished — in Syria and the region."

McConnell is certainly not the only member of Congress -- in either party -- who's still skeptical about U.S. action. But his remarks are notable considering the support that the president received Tuesday from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). So, what's going on here? While there is no obvious reason not to believe McConnell's skepticism is based on what he said -- simply that he wants to know more before making a decision -- there are also political implications that are impossible to ignore.

For starters, McConnell is facing reelection in 2014 and a primary challenger who has said that the United States should not get involved in Syria. If he argues the opposite view, McConnell would immediately fuel debate and elevate the issue in the campaign.

What's more, fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has come out in full force against military intervention. If McConnell had come out of the meeting Tuesday as supportive of Obama's plan, he would instantly be triggering a story about discord over Syria within the Kentucky GOP delegation. And he would risk alienating Paul's supporters. (Paul has endorsed McConnell's bid for reelection.)

Third, there is some disagreement among Senate Republicans about which stance the United States should take with Syria, and the fault lines are complex. Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, has said he favors a targeted strike. Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on Armed Services, is much more skeptical. And at a  Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday afternoon with Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the most prominent members, appeared unconvinced by the Obama administration's case for intervention.

McConnell is the leader of all three senators -- and more. In short, his job isn't easy when it comes to Syria.

Indeed, there will be Republican discord in the House, too. And Democrats in both the House and Senate won't all agree, either. But there are a lot of moving parts for McConnell to consider when it comes to Syria, arguably more than for any other congressional leader. His statement Tuesday seemed to reflect that reality.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza · September 3, 2013