In the last 24 hours, as a discouraged Capitol Hill staffer told me, “the Obama team is not inspiring confidence or winning votes right now. In fact, [we] probably lost some [votes].” The reason for this isn’t hard to discern.
First, the president is not making the full-court press as he did, for example, on Obamacare or even the sequester. He isn’t giving a speech. He hasn’t presented something all factions (liberals, hawkish Republicans and those nervous-but-persuadable members in both parties) need and have explicitly asked for: an explanation for what he is going to do and how this fits into a plan for Syria and by extension Iran. One infuriated GOP House staffer said simply, “He’s dropped the mic.”
This in turn has led to a serious defection among ordinarily hawkish Republicans (e.g. Liz Cheney, John Bolton), who have instead decided to oppose the resolution on principle. Narrowing the resolution even further has lost the votes of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). When you combine these with the anti-interventionist grandstanders (e.g. Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul) plus anti-war liberals you wind up with less than 60 votes in the Senate, and maybe not even a majority.
Second, there is growing concern among Senate and House fiscal conservatives and pro-defense Republicans about how we are going to pay for this. In February before the House Armed Services Committee, chairman of the joint chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey told the committee, “The question I would ask this committee: What do you want your military to do? If you want it to be doing what it’s doing today, then we can’t give you another dollar. If you want us to do something less than that, we’re all there with you and we’ll figure it out.”
On Fox News Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) expressed this concern:
McKeon was blunt that members will be “pulled in all different directions.” As of now, McKeon said he would not vote for the strike with sequestration cuts looming over the military. Although the president said he wanted to get rid of sequester, McKeon emphasized that this is something the president must do.
Third, the president is trying to entice liberals to support him (by narrowing the resolution, for example) but offering nothing to contentious Republicans. He’s insulted their intelligence with his refusal today to take responsibility for his earlier “red line” comments. He’s refused to speak to the country and/or put a strategic plan out there. He’s not being candid about what this may cost and how to pay for it. However many votes Democratic leaders can round up in the House and Senate, there will not, unless something changes, be enough GOP votes to carry the president over the finish line.
I wish it were different because I sincerely believe no action at all would be disastrous. But if we are to avoid that outcome, the president has to reset the debate and give internationalists on both sides of the aisle some assurances that this will be a properly planned and paid-for military endeavor.
UPDATE: In yet another twist, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted for an amended Syria force resolution by a 10-7 vote. Three things are critical.
First, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) voted no, which will please the far right but seriously damage his reputation with strong-on-defense conservatives. He has been spooked by his experience with immigration reform, it seems.
Second, McCain was able to add critical language to the resolution:
(a) It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria. (b) A comprehensive U.S. strategy in Syria should aim, as part of a coordinated international effort, to degrade the capabilities of the Assad regime to use weapons of mass destruction while upgrading the lethal and non-lethal military capabilities of vetted elements of Syrian opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army.
That will please some conservatives, though it will rattle anti-interventionists.
Third, and most importantly, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he would not filibuster the measure. If so, this suggests the White House could get a narrow “yes” vote in the Senate, without having to find 60 votes. The House remains extremely problematic and it is not clear yet whether there is a bipartisan majority in the Senate.