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How the Votes are Shaping Up on Syria

Division within each party as the authorization of force heads for a vote next week.

by
Bill Straub

Bio

September 4, 2013 - 5:31 pm

WASHINGTON – The fate of President Obama’s appeal to Congress to undertake a military strike against the government of Syria for employing chemical weapons against rebel forces remains as murky as the Barada River, but there exists a growing feeling that the White House has a lot of ground to make up.

A rough survey of congressional offices by CNN established that most lawmakers remain undecided on the president’s entreaty at this late stage. More than half of the Senate – 70 members, according to CNN – remain uncommitted. The same is true in the House, where 338 of the 435 representatives have yet to make their feelings known.

Otherwise, as predicted, it appears the president will have an easier slog through the Democrat-controlled Senate than the Republican-controlled lower chamber. Of those lawmakers on the record, supporters outstrip opponents 20-10 in the Senate, while foes maintain a 69-25 edge in the House.

“It’s a cliché, but true — there are no easy answers,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Syria and much of the Middle East are a mess.”

There was a sense earlier in the week that the Obama request – despite polls showing six out of 10 Americans opposing unilateral intervention in Syria – was gaining congressional momentum. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Republican Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), all emerged from White House sessions to declare their support, providing military action with a patina of bipartisanship.

That same feeling could be experienced in the Senate, where Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, has been uncharacteristically quiet on the issue. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two foreign policy hawks, leant their support. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the panel’s ranking member, worked together to craft a use-of-force resolution.

That passed the committee 10-7-1 on Wednesday and is headed for the full Senate.

But some of that upper chamber coalition may be dropping off. McCain expressed opposition to the Menendez-Corker resolution, asserting that its provisions – limiting the scope and duration of congressional authorization to 90 days, prohibiting the introduction of ground troops and requiring the White House to issue a report to Congress explaining its strategy for achieving a political settlement in Syrian – were too restrictive. He ultimately voted in favor of the measure.

Ultimately, according to Senate observers, several Democrats are expected to alienate themselves from the White House position and oppose any military resolution against the government of Bashar al-Assad, but there are expected to be sufficient GOP votes to compensate for any shortfall.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) is considered one of those disaffected Democrats. He has been a vocal opponent of sending heavy weapons to the Syrian rebels and further embroiling the United States in the Syrian civil war.

“We’re being told we’re bombing in order to send a message but what message are we sending?” Udall asked during a Senate Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on Tuesday. “To the international community, we’re saying once again, the United States will be the world’s policeman. You break a law, and the United States will step in. We are on shaky international legal foundations with this potential strike and we need to know whether we exhausted all diplomatic and economic sanction options to affect Syria’s behavior.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has proven to be the most vocal intervention foe, asserting that while he condemns the introduction of chemical weapons into the Syrian conflict there exists “no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring in to power people friendly to the United States.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) added that “America cannot afford another conflict that taxes our resources without achieving goals that advance American interests and I will not support authorizing military action against Syria at this time.” 

Intervention supporters also are stepping up. Reid called the use of military force against Syria “justified and necessary.”

“I believe the United States has a moral obligation as well as a national security interest in defending innocent lives against such atrocities and in enforcing international norms such as the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “Assad must be held accountable for his heinous acts and the world looks to us for leadership.”

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) characterized Assad’s actions as “shocking and deplorable.”

“Without putting American troops on the ground, the atrocities in Syria require a strong response that will prevent them from happening again and ensure that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile does not fall into the hands of terrorists and further destabilize the Middle East,” she said.

The message is a little more mixed on the House side. Boehner, who regularly tangles with the president on any number of lesser issues, said in supporting the White House position, “the use of these weapons has to be responded to, and only the U.S. has the capability.”

Cantor was more emphatic, maintaining that the U.S. “has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially by a terrorist state such as Syria, and to prevent further instability in a region of vital interest.”

“Bashar Assad’s Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism, is the epitome of a rogue state, and it has long posed a direct threat to American interests and to our partners,” he said. “The ongoing civil war in Syria has enlarged this threat.”

Blue Dog Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) said he opposes U.S. involvement “without strong international support.”

“The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is reprehensible but without attainable objectives tied to a clear strategy, direct military intervention by the U.S. is a mistake that will lead to numerous unforeseen consequences,” Schrader said. “We should continue to work with our international partners to end the violence in Syria through other means. Our nation has much bigger economic security issues at home that more greatly threaten our nation.”

Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.), another foe, explained, “Frankly, I don’t think we need to get involved in another war in the Middle East.”

“After a decade of American involvement in the Middle East, I believe a majority of Northern Michigan’s citizens have grown tired of war and are weary of getting involved in another nation’s civil war,” he said.

Washington freelancer Bill Straub is former White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.