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Roll Call

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.

“We are not going to lose this vote,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

The administration’s next big public test comes Tuesday, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convenes the first public hearing on the use-of-force measure. That panel and Senate leadership were said by an aide to be consulting on the text of the resolution.

With scores of lawmakers cutting short their recess and returning to the Capitol early, and more headed to town for the Senate hearing, the atmosphere took on the eerie feel of the bipartisan, high-pressure negotiations over the 2008 Wall Street bailout. As with the Troubled Asset Relief Program bill, senior lawmakers in both parties said the broad authorization proposed by the White House on Saturday night would have to be narrowed significantly to get their support. And like TARP, the final language will have to be hammered out between the two chambers’ bipartisan leadership to avoid having to vote on multiple resolutions. Narrowing the language has the advantage of allowing lawmakers to say they reined in the president’s original request while still allowing them to vote for the final product.

But if TARP is a model, it also provides a cautionary one, given the bailout failed on the initial House vote.

Many lawmakers who attended a classified briefing Sunday in the Capitol said a Syria resolution vote would have failed if it had been held this weekend.

“So far he doesn’t have congressional authority, he doesn’t have the American people with him, and he doesn’t have an international coalition,” said former Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. “So there are big hurdles that he’s got to go through.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. — a close ally of Boehner — said the dynamic could well change.

“Ten days is a long time in politics. The president has got an opportunity to make his case,” he said. But Cole, like many lawmakers, isn’t sure the president’s strategy of a limited strike aimed at deterring Assad and others from using chemical weapons will accomplish much.

“If we’re not going to destroy or secure the [chemical] stocks, if we’re not trying to change the regime, if this is all about making a point — and not a particularly effective one at that — then that strikes me as a rather frivolous use of American military power,” he said.

And Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut said there was “a great deal of skepticism even for limited strikes” among the almost 70 lawmakers who attended Sunday’s briefing.

“To me, there’s profoundly unanswered questions about effectiveness, about what happens next, about whether we’ve got any international support out there at all for military action. ... So I’m a long way from being a yes vote on even a narrower resolution.”

But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida — who also serves as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee — said her calculations are simple.

“This has nothing to do with politics,” she said, noting “the images of babies lined up dead.”

“As a mother I would want ... a nation as strong as the United States [to] stand up for my children,” she said.

Matt Fuller, Emma Dumain and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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