Wonkbook: If the House voted on Syria today, Obama would ‘lose big’

September 6, 2013

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(Photo by Sergey Guneev/EPA)
(Photo by Sergey Guneev/EPA)

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 217. That's how many votes it takes to pass a Syria resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives. Or to kill one. Two "whip counts" have hit 217. Ours is a few short of that, but still clearly heading towards defeat.

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: The World Bank has really great data on Syria you should check out.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) the House is ready to say no on Syria; 2) NSA, superhacker; 3) economy hangs steady; 4) new study on Obamacare premiums; and 5) student loans over for JPMorgan.

1) Top story: If the House voted on Syria today, Obama would 'lose big'

The Syria resolution looks bad in the House. "If the House voted today on a resolution to attack Syria, President Barack Obama would lose — and lose big. That’s the private assessment of House Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides who are closely involved in the process...Several Republican leadership aides, who are counting votes but not encouraging a position, say that there are roughly one to two dozen “yes” votes in favor of military action at this time. The stunningly low number is expected to grow a bit...Democrats privately say that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) can only round up between 115 and 130 “yes” votes." John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman in Politico.

Whip counts: The Washington Post counts 204 nays in the House already. ABC News and Firedoglake are at 217 nays. Enough to kill it.

White House recognizes that the House is biggest threat to the Syria resolution. "The White House and its allies intensified efforts to win backing for a military strike on Syria in the House, which has emerged as the most formidable barrier to congressional approval. The effort comes as a growing number of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in the House are expressing deep skepticism or outright opposition to military action, raising questions about how President Barack Obama will round up a majority for a measure authorizing a strike." Janet Hook and Siobhan Hughes in The Wall Street Journal.

...They've talked to a third of lawmakers so far. "The Obama administration has discussed Syria with about one-third of Congress in the past two weeks — at least 60 senators and 125 House members — according to a White House official who shared the statistics with POLITICO on the condition of anonymity. The numbers reflect both the effort that’s already gone into a “flood the zone” approach to building support for American strikes in Syria and the work that’s still left to be done." Jonathan Allen in Politico.

Explainer: Everything you need to know about Syria’s chemical weaponsBrad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Obama, from Russia, urges U.S. lawmakers to back strike on Syria. "Obama carved out time from his trip abroad this week to call key U.S. lawmakers, including five calls to Democratic and Republican senators on Wednesday...White House officials said they are not concerned about the vote trend in Congress so far. They said Obama, who returns to Washington late Friday, will begin a more public campaign, including perhaps a presidential address, to win support from Congress and the American public for a strike." Philip Rucker and Ed O’Keefe in The Washington Post.

@JohnJHarwood: Remember on early Syria Congressional vote counts: safest place to be for virtually any member of either party right now is "lean no"

Pentagon ordered to expand target list in Syria. "President Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action...The strikes would be aimed not at the chemical stockpiles themselves — risking a potential catastrophe — but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks, military officials said Thursday." David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt in The New York Times.

Who are the good guys, again? "This scene, documented in a video smuggled out of Syria a few days ago by a former rebel who grew disgusted by the killings, offers a dark insight into how many rebels have adopted some of the same brutal and ruthless tactics as the regime they are trying to overthrow. As the United States debates whether to support the Obama administration’s proposal that Syrian forces should be attacked for using chemical weapons against civilians, this video, shot in the spring of 2012, joins a growing body of evidence of an increasingly criminal environment populated by gangs of highwaymen, kidnappers and killers." C.J. Chivers in The New York Times.

Obama considers address to nation on Syria. "President Obama is considering a high-profile address to the nation on the need for military intervention in Syria — a speech that could come as early as this week — according to top lawmakers and administration officials. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said today there is no speech planned at this point, but that Obama is looking at “multiple opportunities” to make the case directly to Congress and the American people. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he has “no doubt” the president will make a speech from the Oval Office in the coming days." Devin Dwyer in ABC News.

Important interviews: Sen. Kerry went on Chris Hayes's MSNBC showMSNBC. A military expert explains how Syria missile strikes might actually workThe Washington Post. And Nancy PelosiTime Magazine.

Joe Biden, lawmakers meet in White House Situation Room. "Vice President Joe Biden hosted a late-afternoon briefing on Syria with a small set of House and Senate members in the White House Situation Room Thursday, according to a White House official. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, who has taken an increasingly high profile during the Syria debate, joined Biden in briefing lawmakers. Attendees included Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), according to a photo of the meeting distributed by the White House." Jonathan Allen in Politico.

@BobCusack: Some senators have to be thinking: If #Syria resolution can't pass the House, why again are we voting on it?

Why House Dems think Syria resolution could still pass. "Aides say this will change next week, on Monday, when Members are set to be briefed en masse by White House officials. Aides believe Members won’t really make up their minds until they see the classified info, which will make a No vote harder...Aides believe that many of those who say they are leaning No are not necessarily at that point. Aides believe there’s a lot of pressure on Dems — given the unpopularity of strikes with constituents, as reflected in the polls, and given some of the pressure being directed to offices by liberal groups — to downplay the possibility of a Yes vote later. So aides think the whip counts don’t tell the real story." Greg Sargent in The Washington Post.

Explainer: Three big ways the U.S. could help Syrians without using the militaryLydia DePillis in The Washington Post.

Senate to convene briefly to move Syria resolution along. "The Senate will convene briefly Friday so that senators can formally submit a resolution authorizing use of military force against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Senate will convene very quickly — “for like 30 seconds,” one senior Senate aide said — to file the resolution and set it up for debate next week." Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

@BuzzFeedAndrew: What's amazing is I've watch 50+ hours of town halls since August 3rd & I've never seen 1 constituent ask to intervene in Syria. All oppose.

US decides not to horse-trade with Russia on Assad. "These initiatives weren't worth sacrificing for a deal on Syria, which was then lower on the foreign-policy priority list, say current and former officials who took part in the brainstorming exercise. Likewise, officials doubted such a gambit would work with a Russian leader whose motivations have confounded the U.S...As of Thursday, Russia had two warships, two support vessels and three amphibious troop and equipment movers off the Syrian coast, which U.S. officials say they believe are tracking American military movements in the area to share with the Syrian regime. U.S. officials say they believe Russian satellites and radar sites are also feeding information to the Syrian regime. Mr. Putin said earlier this week that Russia would complete delivery of advanced S-300 air-defense systems to Syria if the U.S. strikes, which could shift the regional military balance." Adam Entous, Greg White and Peter Nicholas in The Wall Street Journal.

Explainer: 10 things that could go very wrong if we attack SyriaEzra Klein in The Washington Post.

Iran plots revenge attack on US if it strikes Syria. "The U.S. has intercepted an order from Iran to Shiite militants in Iraq to attack the U.S. Embassy and other American interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike on Syria, officials said, amid an expanding array of reprisal threats across the region. Military officials have been trying to predict the range of possible responses from Syria, Iran and their allies. U.S. officials said they are on alert for Iran's fleet of small, fast boats in the Persian Gulf, where American warships are positioned. U.S. officials also fear Hezbollah could attack the U.S. Embassy in Beirut." Julian E. Barnes and Adam Entous in The Wall Street Journal.

@blakehounshell: Here's a writing challenge to ponder: Do you think you could draft the speech Obama needs to make to win this Syria vote?

PRICE: How to defend the norm against chemical-weapons use without a strike. "What’s really at stake is whether there is legal precedent for such an attack (no); whether attacking could do more harm than good, including to international law (it might); and whether that taboo would weaken if the United States doesn’t attack Syria (perhaps not)...Absent a perfect storm of moral opportunity, a long-term commitment to pressing for Syrian ascension to the Chemical Weapons Convention might best accommodate competing legal and moral imperatives. That convention contains far-reaching and intrusive provisions governing the use, possession, production, and trade of chemical weapons." Richard Price in Foreign Affairs.

LIEBERMAN AND KYL: Inaction on Syria threatens U.S. security. "Regardless of how we got here, failure to authorize military force against Assad now will have far-reaching and profoundly harmful consequences for American national security. This is no longer just about the conflict in Syria or even the Middle East. It is about American credibility. Are we a country that our friends can trust and our enemies fear? Or are we perceived as a divided and dysfunctional superpower in retreat, whose words and warnings are no longer meaningful?" Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl in The Wall Street Journal.

@JimPethokoukis: Syria's central bank chief is referred to as "his excellency." Bet Larry Summers would go for that

KRAUTHAMMER: Unless he's serious, vote no. "Sen. Bob Corker: “What is it you’re seeking?” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “I can’t answer that, what we’re seeking.” We have a problem. The president proposes attacking Syria, and his top military officer cannot tell you the objective. Does the commander in chief know his own objective? Why, yes. “A shot across the bow,” explained Barack Obama. Now, a shot across the bow is a warning. Its purpose is to say: Cease and desist, or the next shot will sink you. But Obama has already told the world — and Bashar al-Assad in particular — that there will be no next shot." Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post.

KLEIN: Why the very bad arguments for intervening in Syria matter. "[I]f the Iraq war was such a good idea, its proponents wouldn’t need to tell so many false stories about why they were doing it and what it would accomplish to win over the public. Tuesday’s hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee raised similar alarm bells. The word “lies” goes too far, to be sure. But over and over again, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the assembled members of Congress spun implausible doomsday scenarios of future chemical attacks on American troops or civilians, or implied that the intervention was motivated by the ongoing massacre and would, somehow, stop it." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

ZAKARIA: There will be mission creep. "The reality is, the U.S. has now put its credibility on the line. It will find it extremely difficult to keep its actions limited in a volatile situation. And were it to succeed in ousting Assad, it would be implicated in the next phase of this war, which would almost certainly lead to chaos and the slaughter or ethnic cleansing of the Alawite sect (to which Assad belongs) and perhaps of other minorities, as happened in Iraq. " Fareed Zakaria in Time Magazine.

IGNATIUS: Syria nears a turning point. "Gen. Ziad Fahd, the commander of the “southern front” for the Free Syrian Army, urged in a telephone interview Wednesday that the United States and its allies attack six air bases and three rocket-launching batteries around Damascus. He said that with these targets taken out, his 30,000 troops in the Damascus area “can launch attacks on the rest” of the regime’s forces in the south." David Ignatius in The Washington Post.

NOONAN: Why America will say 'no' on Syria. "What are the American people thinking? Probably some variation of: Wrong time, wrong place, wrong plan, wrong man...Twelve years of war. A sense that we're snakebit in the Mideast. Iraq and Afghanistan didn't go well, Libya is lawless. In Egypt we threw over a friend of 30 years to embrace the future. The future held the Muslim Brotherhood, unrest and a military coup. Americans have grown more hard-eyed—more bottom-line and realistic, less romantic about foreign endeavors, and more concerned about an America whose culture and infrastructure seem to be crumbling around them." Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal.

CARTER: How Congress can limit Obama's war in Syria. "The lesson of history is clear: Whatever limiting language Congress adopts, a determined chief executive will read it to justify pretty much whatever he wants it to justify...I am not necessarily a fan of tying the hands of the commander in chief as U.S. forces go into battle. If it’s going to be done, however, the most effective tool for curtailing presidential discretion is the appropriations power." Stephen L. Carter in Bloomberg.

Music recommendations interlude: Wilco, "War on War."

Top opinion

SKINNER: The cost paradox of healthcare tech. "It may surprise you to learn that economists agree on why the fiscal outlook for health care is so dismal: the cause is the continued development and diffusion of new technologies, whether it’s new drugs for treating depression, left-ventricular assistance devices, or implantable defibrillators...The first is a dizzying array of different treatments, some that provide enormous health value per dollar spent and some that provide little or no value. The second is a generous system of insurance (both private and public) that pays for any treatment that doesn’t obviously harm the patient, regardless of how effective it is." Jonathan S. Skinner in MIT Technology Review.

KLEIN: Will John Boehner retire in 2014? "John Boehner may or may not retire at the end of this term. But Boehner does not want to go down as the guy who managed the two least-productive, least-popular congresses of all time, and whose greatest accomplishments were convincing his members not to shut down the government or breach the debt ceiling. According to the Huffington Post, before he retires, he wants at least one legacy-building accomplishment. He’ll even stay in Congress to get it." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

WEIGEL: What we can learn from the new political almanac. "The biennial arrival of a new Almanac of American Politics is a moment of true joy for political reporters. Here again—finally!—are current capsule histories of the 435 congressional districts and 50 states. Here in one place are enough factoids to make any hack seem like an expert on a congressman he’s only just heard of before going on TV to discuss him...Flip back and forth between this book and the 2012 edition, which contains theold Obama-McCain margins before the gerrymanders, and you see how the gerrymanders of 2010 have taken most of the country out of play." David Weigel in Slate.

KRUGMAN: Years of waste. "Some of that immensity can be measured in dollars and cents. Reasonable measures of the “output gap” over the past five years — the difference between the value of goods and services America could and should have produced and what it actually produced — run well over $2 trillion. That’s trillions of dollars of pure waste, which we will never get back." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

SUNSTEIN: In memory of Coase. "Coase recognized, of course, that it will often be costly for people to negotiate with one another. If a factory emits pollution that affects thousands of people, a bargain is unlikely. Coase’s analysis suggests that when people can’t negotiate, policy makers should try to identify the agreement they would reach if they had been able to do so. To identify that agreement, they have to analyze the benefits and costs of the harm-producing activity." Cass R. Sunstein in Bloomberg.

EMANUEL: House calls making a comeback. "The Affordable Care Act began financing a project in 2012 to determine in what setting house calls can be most effective. Doctors who make house calls share in savings if they provide quality care and reduce costs. There are small studies that indicate these primary care visits can decrease hospitalization rates by more than 60 percent and save around 25 percent in total costs — all with extremely high patient satisfaction." Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The New York Times.

I'm not sure where Ezra is going on this one interlude: The one sex tape that explains Syria.

2) NSA, superhacker

NSA foils much internet encryption. "The National Security Agency is winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age, according to newly disclosed documents. The agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world, the documents show." Nicole Perlroth, Jeff Larson and Scott Shane in The New York Times.

Lawsuit to force release of many more NSA documents. "In a major victory in one of EFF's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits, the Justice Department conceded yesterday that it will release hundreds of pages of documents, including FISA court opinions, related to the government’s secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the law the NSA has relied upon for years to mass collect the phone records of millions of innocent Americans. In a court filing, the Justice Department, responding to a judge’s order, said that they would make public a host of material that will “total hundreds of pages” by next week." Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Late-night comedy interlude: David Letterman explains why John McCain was playing poker.

3) 176k jobs in August

Solid economic data point to strong jobs report. "An estimate of monthly hiring released Thursday morning by the human resources firm ADP clocked in at 176,000 jobs for August — a slowdown from the previous month, but still in line with the steady rebound this summer. Meanwhile, government data showed the number of people filing for unemployment benefits dropped to 323,000 last week. The four-week average for claims hit a six-year low. The Labor Department is slated to report its closely watched estimate of employment Friday morning." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Number of underwater homeowners continues to decline. "According to the housing data company RealtyTrac, there were 10.7 million U.S. homeowners who owed at least 25 percent more on their mortgages than their homes were worth as of the beginning of September. However, that number has been dropping. It was down from 11.3 million in May and 12.5 million in September 2012. You can read the report here." Kathy Orton in The Washington Post.

Debt is making a comeback. "[S]ome experts say the deleveraging is over and releveraging is well under way, with corporate borrowers taking new loans hand over fist from investors hungry for higher returns...Economists and analysts aren't flashing warning signs. They say responsible borrowing, lending and investing are needed to get the U.S. economy to full strength." James Sterngold and Matt Wirz in The Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. may have more manufacturing jobs than we think. "In a new paper, two economists point out that nowadays there are lots of companies in the United States that aren’t counted as manufacturing by the government but are still heavily involved in the manufacturing of goods...The authors, Andrew Bernard and Teresa Fort of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, define a “factory-less goods producer” as a company that designs and coordinates the manufacturing of various goods. It just doesn’t have an actual factory or assembly plant; that part is usually contracted out...Right now, the Census Bureau counts these U.S. companies as “wholesale” firms instead of “manufacturers.” But that’s certainly an arguable point. After all, many of the engineers and designers at these firms would count as manufacturing workers if their company happened to have a factory in-house, even though they’d be doing the exact same job." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Summers faces key 'no' votes in Senate. "At least three Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee are expected to oppose Lawrence Summers if he is nominated to become Federal Reserve chairman, setting up a razor-thin vote to determine who will lead the central bank at a critical moment for its easy-money policies. Democrats hold a two-vote majority on the 22-member panel, so the loss of three Democrats would make it impossible for Mr. Summers to advance to the full Senate for a confirmation vote without the backing of some the 10 Republicans...The committee Democrats expected to oppose Mr. Summers are Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, according to congressional aides." Damian Paletta and Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

Turnover at Federal Reserve adds uncertainty to interest rate and QE3 promises. "The policy committee steers the nation’s economy by setting interest rates that determine what businesses and consumers pay for loans. The personnel changes have heightened the uncertainty surrounding the Fed’s next moves. That’s because one of the main ways the central bank has tried to bolster the economy now is by promising to act in the future." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

You can’t believe everything Larry Summers says. "Here’s a tip for listening to Larry Summers if he becomes Federal Reserve chairman: You can’t always believe what he says. At least not literally. It’s not that he’s untruthful. It’s that if he raises a concern, or asks what seems like a loaded question, you can’t infer that he favors a specific course of action. He loves to think out loud, ponder every side of a question." Zachary Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

More late-night comedy interlude: Alec Baldwin is getting an MSNBC show. (Oh, wait, this one's not supposed to be a joke.)

4) New study on Obamacare premiums

Kaiser study finds 'lower than expected' Obamacare premiums. "The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation compiled premium data from the new marketplaces in the 17 states where it is fully available and released a variety of figures showing how much consumers will pay if they choose to purchase coverage individually. The study is among the first to show in detail what a variety of exchange-based health plans will cost people of different ages and incomes under ObamaCare — a major source of debate between supporters and opponents of the law." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Study: "An Early Look at Premiums and Insurer Participation in Health Insurance Marketplaces, 2014" by Cynthia Cox, Gary Claxton, Larry Levitt and Hana Khosla. Kaiser Family Foundation.

HHS to promote ObamaCare with $12M ad buy. "The Obama administration is readying a multimillion-dollar onslaught of ads in a dozen red states to encourage Americans to sign up for Obamacare insurance exchanges, media-tracking sources tell POLITICO. The Center for Medicare Services at the Dept. of Health and Human Services has reserved at least $12 million in airtime starting Sept. 30 in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana and Michigan." Alexander Burns and Kyle Cheney in Politico.

IRS issues rules for employer mandate under Obamacare. "[T]he IRS is urging insurers and applicable employers to begin following the draft rules next year on a voluntary basis...The proposed regulations are meant to streamline and simplify reporting requirements. If enacted as drafted, they would replace mandated employee statements about coverage offers from employers with a W-2-based system for reporting the company-sponsored healthcare offers to workers and their families. The regulations would also ease several other reporting requirements, and would limit reporting for self-insured employers that offer no-cost coverage." Ben Goad in The Hill.

I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy interlude: "Poll: Majority Of Americans Approve Of Sending Congress To Syria."

5) JPMorgan exits student loan biz

JPMorgan is leaving the private student lending business. "[It] has decided to get out of the student loan business, after the biggest U.S. bank concluded that competition from federal government programs and increased scrutiny from regulators had limited its ability to expand the business. JPMorgan, which already restricted student loans to existing Chase bank customers, will stop accepting applications for private student loans on October 12, at the end of the peak borrowing season for this school year, according to a memo from the company to colleges that was reviewed by Reuters on Thursday. Final loan disbursements are expected before March 15, 2014." David Henry in Reuters.

The Tuition is Too Damn High, Part IX: Will MOOCs save us? "The way we teach hasn’t really changed in millenia. The best way to reduce college costs going forward would be to figure out a way to get better at making students smarter...By now, you’ve probably heard of Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs for short. Those are courses offered online, often for free, without admissions requirements or enrollment limits. Anyone who wants to can watch the videos and do the assignments." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

The Tuition is Too Damn High, Part IX: Will MOOCs save usDylan Matthews.

Three big ways the U.S. could help Syrians without using the militaryLydia DePIllis.

The U.S. may have more manufacturing jobs than we thinkBrad Plumer.

10 things that could go very wrong if we attack SyriaEzra Klein.

Will John Boehner retire in 2014Ezra Klein.

You can’t believe everything Larry Summers saysZachary Goldfarb.

A military expert explains how Syria missile strikes might actually workLydia DePillis.

Why the very bad arguments for intervening in Syria matterEzra Klein.

Everything you need to know about Syria’s chemical weaponsBrad Plumer.

Et Cetera

Why Bill de Blasio won't be able to fix income inequality in NYC as a mayorEdward L. Glaeser in The New Republic.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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Brad Plumer · September 5, 2013