Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) waited for the laughter to die down.
At a town hall meeting with tea party supporters, somebody had asked Yoho about a rumor. Was it true that he — a conservative veterinarian in his first term who loudly opposes any compromise with the White House — was working with Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), Congress’s leading liberal loudmouth?
The laughter stopped.
“I wish I could tell you it wasn’t true,” Yoho recounted saying. “But it is true.” There were gasps, he said.
Yoho and Grayson are among a group of unlikely allies in Congress: liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, united by their opposition to a military strike against Syria.
The Democrats in the group have lost faith in war. The Republicans have lost faith (or never had it) in President Obama. In this case, — as Obama seeks approval for a limited kind of warmaking — their doubts aligned.
The result was an ad hoc coalition of Congress’s unwilling.
This group has become the core of a surprising backlash in the House. At least for now, it appears that more than half of representatives are ready to defy both a Republican speaker and a Democratic president, and vote against a military strike.
“What you’re hitting on is this general consensus — across the political spectrum — that we just need to mind our own business. And that’s not a liberal or conservative concept. It’s just a universal law of life,” Grayson said. He has taken it upon himself to organize the effort to oppose the strike.
“We’re gonna win,” Grayson predicted this week. “Pretty sure.”
Congress is not likely to hold votes on a Syria strike until next week, at the earliest. That leaves plenty of time for the tide to turn. President Obama has planned a national address from the Oval Office on Tuesday to make the case for military intervention.
But, for now, the nays appear to have it: Just 25 House members have signaled they will vote yes.
That makes this a remarkable moment on Capitol Hill. Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have joined to support action against Syria.
And, in the House, the coalition that’s with them is smaller than the Congressional Cement Caucus. (The Senate is more evenly split: Roughly one-quarter of its members are for military intervention, another quarter appear against it and the other half are undecided.)
On the other side of the issue, more than 200 House members are in the “no” or “leaning no” category. That total includes people from many of Congress’s political tribes, including the centrists and party loyalists least likely to cross the leaders.
“I’m disappointed,” Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.), who hails from a Democratic-leaning district and has supported most compromises this year, told reporters after a classified briefing Thursday. LoBiondo said he has “great problems” with the strike and is for now planning to vote against the resolution.
“We don’t want to make the same mistake we made before,” Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a regular supporter of Obama’s agenda, told reporters after the same briefing.
This side also includes mainstream Republicans such as Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.) and Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (Fla.), close allies of Boehner who were appointed by him to the House Intelligence Committee. If the speaker’s own allies are against this, it gives plenty of cover for conservative lawmakers to oppose it without fear of further alienating Boehner.
But many of this side’s most enthusiastic members — its recruiters, organizers and “whips” — are those from the ideological edges of both parties.
This is not their first time working together. In July, many of the same members led an effort to rein in National Security Agency spying — limiting it only to people tied to an active investigation.
Obama opposed them. Boehner opposed them. And the coalition lost. But not by much: The margin was 217 to 205. For many members, that was a sign that they could find allies across the aisle.
Some have been trying to organize a stronger effort this time. So far, they’ve attracted slightly more than half of those who voted for the NSA amendment — and dozens upon dozens of members who weren’t with them before.
In some case, the recruiting process is collaborative, gentle.
“We’re at this point trying to put a group of folks together to see what kind of language we could all support,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). His aim was to gain signatures for a letter that would urge Obama to assemble a multinational coalition before taking any action on Syria.
In other cases — particularly those involving Grayson — the planned approach sounds more like serving someone with a subpoena. He has gathered 35,000 signatures on an online petition, dontattacksyria.com. When Congress returns, Grayson said, he’s going to divide up the names by congressional district.
And go looking for congressmen.
“I’m going to take actual lists of their constituents who signed the petition and show them,” Grayson said. “We’ve set up our own ad hoc whip operation,” he said, with running tallies of who’s on his side.
The job, in many cases, is not hard.
Many legislators have recounted comments from constituents that run lopsidedly against the idea of intervention.
“I have yet to speak to a member whose constituents have said, this is really important,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who is part of a solid conservative bloc normally opposed to most of the president’s agenda.
“I don’t think we’ve had a single call or comment in favor,” Chaffetz said. “It is not lighting up the phones, other than, ‘Don’t do it.’ ”
The strong coalition assembled against action in Syria is a demonstration of something profound about Capitol Hill. There, power does not work the way it used to.
By the usual rules of Congress, for instance, Grayson would be a man with almost no power at all. He is a member of the minority party, in his second term, who gained infamy as a loud, partisan attack dog against Republicans during the health-care debate. His most famous accusation was: “The Republican health-care plan is this: Die quickly.”
But the rules have changed. So, for that matter, has Grayson. And Grayson himself seems to have changed his approach, abandoning full-time partisan warfare for an outreach to libertarians who agree with him on this issue. “You could say we have a love-hate relationship,” he said, and now is the time for love.
In the current Congress — where party discipline has broken down and members cannot plan beyond the next primary — new members are desperate to show their independence. So among the hard “no” votes in the House against a strike on Syria, many are in their first or second term.
“It’s not our civil war. It’s theirs,” said Yoho. “To attack that country — a sovereign country that did not attack us — is an act of aggression. It’s an act of war.”
Grayson says he’s just trying to be effective. Yoho thinks he’s watching a conversion experience.
“I says, ‘Alan’ — I says, ‘You’re starting to sound more like a libertarian,’ ” he recalled in a phone interview. “He said, ‘I know. But it scares me.’ ”