Senate Dems will alter Syria force authorization bill
There was a classified briefing attended by dozens of congressmen and senators yesterday where administration officials outlined the evidence that pointed to the Assad government's complicity in the chemcial weapons attack and where the language of the resolution authorizing force was debated.
In the end, few lawmakers were totally convinced and none supported the resolution as it was worded.
Members emerged from the meeting expressing deep doubts about an assault on Syria, putting into sharp relief the challenge facing Obama as he seeks passage of a resolution authorizing the strikes.
"To me there [are] profoundly unanswered questions about effectiveness, about what happens next, about whether we have any international support out there at all for military action and whether this is a wise idea," said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.).
"So I am a long way from being a 'yes' vote on even a narrower resolution," Himes said.
While it's unclear how deeply the concern about attacking Syria extends into the rank-and-file, there are signs that the votes on using force could become nail-biters for the White House.
Opposition to a bombardment is coming from both parties, and is expected to be particularly strong in the House, where liberal Democrats and Tea Party-supported Republicans have questioned the wisdom of intervening in Syria's bloody civil war.
While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has backed Obama's push for military strikes, one of her top lieutenants on Sunday signaled that House Democrats would not be pressured to vote for Obama's plan.
"Any time you are talking about use of military force, I don't believe any member can be whipped into doing one thing or the other," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, who stressed that he is not personally opposed to military action.
"It is a vote of conscience, and I think this is the supreme vote that any member of Congress can take, so this is not going to be a matter of trying to enforce party discipline or to vote for or against the president," he said.
Asked whether the Syria resolution would pass if a vote were held today, Becerra demurred.
"I couldn't tell you," he replied.
Even in the Senate, where more hawkish views on foreign policy typically prevail, senators balked at the breadth of Obama's war powers request. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said lawmakers planned to revise the language before bringing it up for a vote.
The White House appeared to recognize the challenge that lay ahead, and vowed to "flood the zone" with meetings and briefings intended to assuage doubts before Congress reconvenes on Sept. 9.
The biggest complaint with the language in the resolution authorizing force was that it was too broadly drawn - that it gives the president too much leeway to commit US forces.
The Senate is already revising the language:
The administration's proposal is too open-ended -- a complaint many lawmakers have -- Leahy (D-Vt.) said. The current version wouldn't garner his support, but he indicated that a more tightly written draft might.
"I know it's going to be amended in the Senate," said Leahy, who is the longest-serving Democrat in the chamber.
Aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) are overseeing the revisions, which seek to narrow the scope for any U.S. military mission in Syria, Democratic sources said. It is unclear when the revised proposal will be released, or what reception it will get from the White House. Obama administration officials drafted their own resolution that was sent to Capitol Hill on Saturday without congressional input, and it was clear from the moment that it was unveiled that party leaders in both chambers would seek to change it.
Hill aides noted the White House-originated draft did not prevent the deployment of American ground forces in Syria in order to fulfill the mission of interdicting the Assad regime use of chemical weapons. That restriction is seen by some in Congress as a key to winning support for the military effort in both the House and Senate.
If the White House approves the Senate version, it is likely to sail through to passage. While some core Republicans like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul will probably vote against any resolution authorizing force, there will be a dozen or so GOP Senators who will vote with the Democrats - who, with a handful of exceptions, will vote to support their party leader and president.
The House is a different story. Right now, there may be well over a hundred members from both parties who appear to be dead set against a strike at Syria. But the dual appeal to party loyalty and the danger of undercutting US credibility will probably allow a resolution to squeak through.
So a strike with no discernible objective except saving the president's credibility has a good chance of eventually passing the Congress. It's a pathetic statement about how American power has been frittered away by this president whose amateurish incompetence may yet embroil us in another war.