Syria resolution could stall Congress’s work on divisive domestic issues

September 7, 2013

President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval of military strikes against Syria threatens to make an already contentious fall agenda on Capitol Hill even more unstable, heightening the chance of political gridlock.

Congressional leaders, who will return Monday after a five-week break, had planned to use September to position their caucuses for a showdown over government funding levels and a bid to increase the federal debt limit, the third clash over the debt since 2011. The two sides are also jockeying over a proposed immigration overhaul and a continuing struggle over the farm bill, which was a victim of a conservative revolt over food stamps.

Instead, the first order of business is the question of whether to support missile strikes in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged chemical attack on civilians. Rank-and-file lawmakers, many of whom were demanding congressional input on the decision, now appear stunned that it is before them amid so many other divisive issues.

“We’re having trouble walking and chewing gum already. This doesn’t make it any easier,” 10-term Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.) said last week as he left a classified briefing on Syria.

The convergence of these issues sets up a complicated negotiating environment, with the Syria question burning up a significant amount of political capital for both Democratic and Republican leaders.

Lawmakers appear to be tentatively dividing into four camps over military action in Syria.

Obama, home from his trip to the Group of 20 summit in Russia, has begun a far-reaching campaign to win support for action against Syria. The president will sit down with PBS, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News Channel for interviews airing Monday night, White House officials said, and will make his case in a speech to the nation on Tuesday.

Obama used his weekly radio address Saturday to try to rally a skeptical public in a bid to shift momentum his way, saying: “We cannot turn a blind eye to images like the ones we’ve seen out of Syria. Failing to respond to this outrageous attack would increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again; that they would fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us, and it would send a horrible signal to other nations that there would be no consequences for their use of these weapons.”

U.S. intelligence officials have authenticated at least 13 videos of the aftermath of the alleged Syrian gas attack showing men and children convulsing and struggling to breathe, a government official said Saturday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the material.

The graphic videos, obtained by The Washington Post, were made public previously on YouTube and other Internet sites. They are among as many as 100 public videos that purport to document victims of the Aug. 21 attack near Damascus.

At the request of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the images were shown to senators Thursday during a classified briefing on whether to authorize limited military strikes against Syrian government targets.

The first hurdle to clear on the resolution is in the Senate, where winning approval for a strike is considered easier than in the House, but not certain. On Saturday, Mark Pryor (Ark.), who is locked in a tough 2014 reelection bid, became the fifth Senate Democrat to publicly oppose the resolution, while the majority of senators remain undecided.

White House officials estimated that by Saturday afternoon, the administration had contacted 85 senators and more than 165 House members to seek support.

White House officials said Saturday that those contacts have included meetings with Vice President Biden and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, phone calls that Obama made Friday night aboard Air Force One on his way home, and classified briefings with senior national security officials.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) will hold an early test vote Wednesday, when he will need 60 “ayes” to formally open debate, with a more critical 60-vote hurdle coming later in the week. Senate GOP leaders have remained largely silent on the issue and an increasingly powerful bloc of libertarian Republicans is leading opposition to a Syria strike; Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) is marshaling support among the more traditional hawkish Republicans.

With some Senate liberals opposed, fearing another quagmire like the Iraq war, Obama needs his 2008 presidential rival to bring along a sizable number of Republicans to win approval in the Senate.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who support a strike, have left rounding up votes to the administration. A large majority of House Republicans do not favor the president’s push amid an outpouring of opposition from constituents who opposed the resolution by about 10-to-1 margins in phone calls and e-mails, according to lawmakers and GOP aides.

“I don’t think anyone wants it to happen,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R). He noted that the Syria issue had finally gotten his eastern Utah constituents to talk about something other than their opposition to the Senate’s immigration bill.

Dwarfing the other issues, the use-of-force resolution prompted more than 100 lawmakers to return early to the Capitol last week from the end-of-summer break to examine classified information about the alleged sarin attacks that killed more than 1,400 Syrians last month.

But they predict heated clashes on the other issues.

“We’re not even talking about those issues now, but you better believe, when we get back, we will,” said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.).

Boehner and Cantor plan to wait for the Senate to make a decision about Syria before taking up the matter in the House. Meantime, the GOP leaders plan to bring to the House floor this week a stopgap funding measure that would leave in place austerity measures mandated by the continuing inability of Obama and Congress to reach a deal on broad tax-and-entitlement reform.

They have yet to decide whether to provoke a showdown over Obama’s health-care law by attaching riders to defund the Affordable Care Act. Doing so would be opposed by the Democratic-controlled Senate and increase chances of a partial government shutdown when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

If the House and Senate can agree on a stopgap funding bill this week, the measure probably would last until Dec. 15 and clear up one legislative headache. Obama would then face the uphill challenge of trying to win approval in the House for attacking Syria. This has been complicated by his refusal to say whether he would abide by the vote if it were defeated, declining to answer the question twice at a news conference Friday closing out his G-20 trip.

White House legal advisers say that as commander in chief, Obama has the power to order strikes without congressional consent, but many lawmakers argue otherwise.

Such a decision would almost certainly prompt an enormous backlash against the president among congressional Republicans.

At a minimum, a strike without congressional approval would make compromise even more challenging in the upcoming fiscal disputes — leaving the immigration bill, despite a large bipartisan Senate vote in June, all but dead.

It would set up a poisonous environment for negotiations on the effort to lift the Treasury’s borrowing authority, which will expire in late October if Congress does not act, and senior GOP and Democratic aides said they feared that some House Republicans would demand impeachment proceedings if Obama rejected the House vote and ordered strikes. Such a move would go nowhere in the Senate, but it would add even more instability to Congress.

The best case for winning House approval of the resolution appears to rest with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who sent a daily “Dear colleague” letter to fellow Democrats for the past week calling for support of Obama. She may have to rally 80 percent of her 200 Democrats, to go along with 50 to 60 Republicans, a very tall order.

Regardless of the outcome on the resolution, Boehner will once again be siding with a minority within his GOP caucus, the latest in a string of votes this year in which a majority of Republicans oppose his position.

Some Democrats privately argue that that gives them the upper hand in the debt-ceiling battle, but Republicans worry that it might lead Boehner to move to the right to keep support in his caucus.

Overall, 111 House members have publicly declared their opposition to the Syria resolution and 115 are leaning against it based on their public statements, according to a whip count maintained by The Washington Post. Just 25 have announced outright support for the resolution.

At least one Wall Street consulting firm has been advised that Syria has turned the fall agenda into havoc.

The firm has advised its clients that the chances of an immigration bill being completed by spring have fallen from 60 percent to 30 percent because of the Syria debate, and warned that the fiscal battles will be even more inflammatory.

“In the Syria vote’s wake will be an even more polarized Congress, a weakened White House, and a House of Representatives in near revolt with a seemingly endless horizon of self-created fiscal cliffs,” Chris Krueger, policy analyst for Guggenheim Securities, wrote last week. Krueger said the best outcome for the fiscal fights would be to approve temporary extensions into December to buy time for protracted negotiations.

“Whenever Congress finds itself on the edge of a cliff, it tends to build more land,” Krueger wrote. “Time was already an incredibly precious commodity for the brewing fiscal battles, which now must compete for time with actual battles.”

David Nakamura contributed to this report.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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