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The six key players in Congress' Syria debate

10:13 PM, Sep 2, 2013   |    comments
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The U.S. Capitol is seen while people walk by Monday. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP)

 

WASHINGTON - A week ago, it seemed the question of whether to take military action against Syria rested solely on the shoulders of President Obama.

But he has turned to Congress to authorize military airstrikes against Syria for using chemical weapons, setting up the most consequential foreign policy vote since the 2002 authorization of the Iraq War.

Obama and his supporters on Capitol Hill will have to overcome broad skepticism about the merits of military strikes and navigate the political divisions that have left Congress largely paralyzed.

The vote also cast a spotlight on key lawmakers who will be critical in determining whether or not Congress authorizes Obama to use military force. Congress is still on recess, but the arm-twisting has begun and the Syria resolution will be the first order of business in both the House and Senate when they return Sept. 9.

STORY: McCain, Graham express optimism on Obama Syria plan

MORE: Latest development on the crisis in Syria

The debate will pit Obama and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi against both Republicans and Democrats skeptical of foreign military intervention. The White House will need support from Republican leaders such as Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., but it is not clear how much influence they will have over their own party.

Here is a guide to the key players to watch, their strategies and the challenges they face:

Nancy Pelosi: Get out the vote

The minority leader has personally come out in favor of Obama's decision to conduct airstrikes as a response to the Aug. 21 attack, which, according to intelligence reports, killed 1,400 people, including at least 400 children.

"Military action in response to (Syrian President Bashar) Assad's reckless use of deadly gas that is limited in scope and duration, without boots on the ground, is in our national security interest and in furtherance of regional stability and global security," Pelosi said Saturday.

Pelosi is a credible voice among anti-war liberals, and Obama's top House ally. Her support is a signal that a significant faction of House Democrats will likely be on board. Pelosi is rarely out of step with her rank-and-file.

Traditionally, leadership does not twist arms for votes that are viewed as a matter of conscience, but this vote is also a referendum on their president's foreign policy agenda so there will be pressure to help Obama avoid an embarrassing defeat. On Monday the White House held a briefing specifically for the House Democratic caucus.

Still, there will be intra-party pressure from the left to oppose the resolution. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., has vocally opposed military intervention, saying that intelligence has failed to prove that Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons. Grayson has launched a website and petition drive to generate opposition to any military intervention in Syria.

And even Obama's strongest allies are working to limit his authority. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has called the president's proposed draft resolution "a partial blank check" with no constraints on the scope or duration of military intervention. "It is too broadly drafted, it's too open ended," he said.

In the end, Pelosi will have to generate a strong vote among House Democrats if the resolution has any hope of passing.

Lawmakers have not returned to Washington from the summer recess, but Democrats remain optimistic the president will have enough support in the end. "It's going to take some time, but I think the votes are there," said a Democratic leadership aide who asked not to be identified because staff is not authorized to discuss vote counts.

John Boehner: Corralling the caucus

Boehner has said he supports Obama's policy on Syria, but has stopped short of endorsing military action as a means to achieve it. Last week, he sent a letter with 15 questions Obama should answer in order to "personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests."

But even if Obama can win over the speaker, it's unclear how many Republican votes he can muster. Forty-six percent of House Republicans have served three or fewer years in Congress, meaning they are facing their first major foreign policy vote to support a president they oppose. So far this year, conservative and Tea Party-inspired House members have shown no hesitation to buck Boehner's leadership.

House Republican leaders, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have faced repeated push back from the rank-and-file on moving even non-controversial legislation, like highway and farm bills. Cantor has criticized Obama for not being decisive in addressing the Syrian crisis, but neither Cantor nor McCarthy has yet taken a public stance endorsing or opposing Obama's request for congressional approval of military action.

Republican lawmakers have issued a raft a statements over the holiday weekend expressing views ranging from skepticism to flat-out opposition to military strikes. And it is not only newcomers who have raised doubts. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who previously chaired the House Republican campaign operation, said "I'm still leaning no," after a classified briefing on Capitol Hill on Sunday.

In contrast, in 2002, all but six House Republicans voted in favor of the Iraq War.

Even Republican defense hawks in the House are withholding their support. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, whose district includes a major Air Force base, leads a line of thought that the military is too decimated by across-the-board government spending cuts - called sequestration - to engage in Syria.

Turner says he wants to link a Syria resolution to more defense spending. "I will not support any funding request for an attack until the president acts to remove the burdens of sequestration from our military," said Turner, who opposed the 2011 law that created sequestration.

Boehner has been criticized by colleagues for bringing legislation to the floor that does not have the support of a majority of House Republicans. But in this case, Republicans may be eager to let Democrats take the lead to advance an Obama cause.

Three senior Republican aides said they believed it will fall upon the president and his allies to do the heaviest lobbying for the measure, and ultimately it will be Democrats in the House who will have to provide the majority of votes in favor. The aides were not authorized to speak publicly about the party's internal deliberations.

John McCain and Lindsey Graham: Key votes

The senior senators from Arizona and South Carolina have been two of the most vocal advocates of engagement in Syria. They've also been the two voices most critical of how Obama has handled the unrest across the Middle East. McCain and Graham are perhaps the GOP's best known defense hawks and can be passionate advocates inside the Senate in support of a resolution if they are "yes" votes.

But they have been unsatisfied with Obama's longer-term Syria strategy, demanding more from the White House on how they intend to change the reality on the ground in Syria because the airstrikes are not intended to remove the Assad regime from power.

After a meeting with Obama on Monday, the two said they had greater confidence that the White House has a meaningful strategy for boosting the Syrian opposition, and that they would support the use of force if Obama can articulate that plan.

"We still have significant concerns," McCain said with Graham standing beside him in front of the White House, "but we believe there is in formulation a strategy to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and to degrade the capabilities of Bashar Assad. Before this meeting we had not had that indication."

McCain added that a defeat of the resolution after the president has committed to use of military force "would be catastrophic."

Graham said it was up to Obama to explain the importance of the Syrian conflict to the American people, and he criticized the president for failing for more than two years to outline coherent goals. "Mr. President - clear the air. Be decisive, be firm about why it matters to us as a nation to get Syria right,'' he said.

Without the support of McCain and Graham, the joint resolution would face a tough road in the Senate.

Democrats control 54 seats in the Senate, and it is possible they will lose some liberal senators, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. Sanders said Saturday that the use of chemical weapons in Syria "is inhumane and a violation of international law," but he added "at this point in time, I need to hear more from the president as to why he believes it is in the best interests of the United States to intervene in Syria's bloody and complicated civil war."

Rand Paul: The hard 'No'

The Kentucky Republican senator and his non-interventionist views are powerful forces within today's Republican Party. Paul's opposition to military engagement in Syria holds sway in both chambers because he has intellectual allies in the House and he is considered a potential 2016 presidential contender.

"I think the line in the sand should be that America gets involved when American interests are threatened. I don't see American interests involved on either side of this Syrian war," Paul said on NBC's Meet the Press, summing up one of the prevailing critical views in Congress on engagement.

Paul is capable of stirring up loud opposition among Tea Party-allied groups. His unsuccessful filibuster earlier this year against U.S. military use of drones made him a star among conservative groups skeptical of the U.S. national security apparatus and suspicious of executive power.

One Paul ally in the House, freshman Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., has already introduced the War Powers Protection Act, which would prohibit any military support to Syria without a congressional declaration of war. It has support from 13 mostly Southern Republicans.

The president's proposed resolution, which authorizes him to use the armed forces "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate," contains no limits on the president's power, Massie said, "It's basically a full-on-declaration of war, but it doesn't say that," he argued. "Lobbying missiles into a sovereign country is an act of war, whether you call it that or not."

But he bristles at the suggestion that he would turn his back on the rest of the world. "I'm not an isolationist," he said Monday. "I'm a non-interventionist."

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., one of the supporters of Massie's bill, is also rallying opposition, taking to Twitter over the weekend to argue that "Americans don't support war in Syria & neither does Congress. No clear U.S. interest or strategy. We don't want entanglement in this war." He also retweeted dozens of messages from military veterans opposing intervention in Syria.

President Obama: Flood the zone

The White House strategy, as one senior administration official put it, is to "flood the zone."

The president and his advisers are trying to hammer home in their conversations with skeptics on Capitol HIll that taking action is about more than just retribution for the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, according to the administration official, who was not authorized to comment on the deliberations.

"The failure to take action against Assad unravels the deterrent impact of the international norm against chemical weapons use," according to the official. "And it risks emboldening Assad and his key allies - Hezbollah and Iran - who will see that there are no consequences for such a flagrant violation of an international norm."

Since announcing on Saturday that he would seek congressional authorization before carrying out a military strike, Obama as well as Vice President Biden and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough have been reaching out to House and Senate members individually by phone to make their case, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

The official declined to name which lawmakers the White House has reached out to thus far.

The president is also scheduled to make his case in a meeting Tuesday at the White House with the top Democrats and Republicans from six key congressional committees on national security issues.

Soon after that meeting, he'll take off for a four-day overseas trip, including two days at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The summit offers Obama an opportunity to drum up international support for a military strike, which has been hard to achieve. To date, President Francois Hollande of France is the only major ally to publicly support military action.

Obama will leave plenty of muscle behind to continue his congressional arm-twisting campaign.

Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate, is playing a key role in Obama's outreach and stood next to him Saturday when the president announced his plan to ask for a vote in Congress.

And McDonough, who served as a foreign policy adviser to former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, will also play an important role. He has deep ties to the Senate and has been talking regularly with Boehner as Obama formulated his Syria plan.

In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made perhaps the administration's most impassioned public statements on behalf of the president in favor of a military strike, will continue to play the role of public advocate as the White House steps up its effort with Congress this week.

On Tuesday, Kerry, along with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who has been publicly skeptical of military action, will make their case before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Kerry is also slated to appear alone before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. And on Wednesday, Kerry, along with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, will also appear before a closed-door classified hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Contributing: Gregory Korte, Paul Singer

 

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