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Will Congress Follow Its Leaders On Syria?

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

President Barack Obama and congressional leaders face a daunting task convincing skeptical lawmakers to back a war against Syria.

Obama’s surprising announcement Saturday that he would go to Congress for a use-of-force authorization put top leaders on the spot — none more so than Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who is inclined to back the president but leads a fractured House deeply dubious of the president.

“The speaker hopes to be able to support the commander in chief,” a Boehner aide told CQ Roll Call. “That will just require the president to provide answers and make the case to the American people.”

That includes detailed answers to the many thorny questions Boehner posed to the president last week — like what, exactly, a strike will accomplish and what contingency plans the administration has if the conflict spreads.

But at some point Boehner will have to make a decision and presumably rally his troops. Whether they will follow is an open question.

Already, there is tension between the House Republican and Democratic camps over who will shoulder the burden of providing the votes to avoid a historic defeat for the president.

GOP aides suggested Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has strongly backed the president, will have to provide the bulk of the votes.

But a Democratic leadership aide put the onus back on Boehner.

“The more interesting question is, can Boehner convince [Republicans] to vote on the substance, not against the president?” the aide said. “At the end of the day, it will be the Republican leadership’s responsibility to get the votes because they are in the majority.”

Obama also has work to do in the Senate. Although Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., backed the president Saturday night, the No. 2 Democrat, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, wasn’t yet on board, and other Senate Democrats have registered their skepticism. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been mostly quiet, beyond a short statement praising the president for coming to Congress. It’s conceivable a coalition of Senate Democrats and Republicans could attempt to filibuster any resolution and force a 60-vote threshold to get to passage.

The White House, meanwhile, scrambled the public relations jets after the president’s unexpected announcement. The administration set up a series of classified briefings for lawmakers, sent Secretary of State John Kerry to all of the networks to make the case and generally did everything it could to whip support, including having the president call wavering lawmakers and ask senior lawmakers to come to the White House.

“The strategy will be to flood the zone,” a senior administration official said.

The message: Failure is not an option.

Failure to act “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,” the senior administration official said.

Kerry, for his part, would not even entertain the thought of Congress voting no.

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