WASHINGTON – Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi voted the same way just five times in the past three years. Every time, the House has followed their lead.
That may change when it comes to Syria. Boehner and Pelosi are among about 20 members – or about 5 percent of the House – publicly supporting a military strike so far.
On the other side is an unusual alliance of tea party Republicans and antiwar Democrats who make up the bulk of at least 68 lawmakers opposed to military action – 54 Republicans and 14 Democrats, according to a Bloomberg News tally.
It would take 217 votes to kill the measure in the House, or to pass it.
In the balance are about 350 House lawmakers who are undecided, leaning one way or the other or haven’t yet made their views known – illustrating the difficult task ahead for President Barack Obama in securing congressional support for a strike.
“Many members on both sides of the aisle are struggling with this issue,” Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who supports military action, said during a House committee hearing on the resolution.
The math in the Senate is only slightly better for Obama, even after Wednesday’s vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to authorize a limited use of military force against Syria.
The threshold in the Senate is 60 votes, and Obama can count on only about 20 confirmed votes, based on public statements made by senators. The full Senate is expected to vote next week, with the House to follow.
The Senate committee vote told of the difficult path ahead for Obama. Three Republicans voted yes: John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Bob Corker of Tennessee. The White House lost three Democrats, with Tom Udall of New Mexico and Chris Murphy of Connecticut voting no and Ed Markey of Massachusetts voting present.
In all, there are about a half-dozen different strains of thought in Congress among members resisting Obama’s push to hold the regime of Bashar Assad accountable for the use of chemical weapons against his own people.
Some don’t think the United States has any business intervening in Syria’s civil war, no matter how limited the strikes, a point of view exemplified by one tea party favorite, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Others, including Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus, are torn between loyalty to the president and their antiwar inclinations.
Others don’t see Obama’s plan for a limited strike as deterring Assad, or want Obama to back anti-Assad rebels more forcefully with more and heavier arms. Some, like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, say Obama’s call for action is too little, too late.
Among the undecided are hundreds of lawmakers who have never before considered a president’s request for the use of force. Obama’s request is the first time a president has put the question to Congress since 2002, before then-President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003.
Many House members weren’t around for the Iraq vote. Out of 433 current House members, 46 percent have served fewer than five years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Of the 46 members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, two- thirds are in their first or second term.
What’s particularly unusual in the House is that when leaders speak, most others follow. Along with Boehner and Pelosi, their top two lieutenants, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland also support military action.
Votes where Boehner and Pelosi agreed since Republicans won control of the House in 2010 included the 2011 compromise on the nation’s debt ceiling. Cantor and Hoyer voted yes on that as well.
Pelosi this week sent out two letters seeking to persuade her caucus to support the president in Syria. In a letter yesterday she asked Democrats for input on the resolution to win votes. Boehner, who by tradition votes rarely on the floor, spoke in favor of a strike on Syria after a meeting with Obama at the White House on Sept. 3.
Even with their support – and endorsements from Rep. Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee – there’s trouble for Obama in the House.
One of the clearest signs is reluctant members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who have typically opposed war yet don’t want to rebuke the nation’s first black president.
“This is very awkward,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. and a co-chairman of Obama’s re-election campaign last year. Cleaver said he’ll probably oppose the resolution.
“The people in my district are war-worn,” Cleaver said in an interview. “The response from my constituents is overwhelmingly no.”
Most members of the black caucus haven’t said which way they’ll vote and are probably waiting until a briefing next week from National Security Adviser Susan Rice, said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking black congressman.
War-weary Americans also had the ears of tea party Republicans opposing the measure and liberal Democrats fighting it.
“You don’t stop a war by getting involved in shooting more,” Lois McIntyre, 73, told Republican Rep. Justin Amash at a coffee shop Wednesday in Hastings, Mich.
Jim Riehl, a 54 year-old former Marine fighter pilot, told Amash that the U.S. should stay out of Syria unless it has the backing of other nations. Jake Jacobson, 75, said he was “totally against” military intervention, as he was against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“Once you start launching missiles, anything can happen,” said Amash, a second-term lawmaker who opposes the resolution.
House members backed by the anti-tax tea party have said that they wouldn’t back any action in Syria. They include Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, John Fleming of Louisiana, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Michael Burgess of Texas, Tim Huelskamp and Lynn Jenkins of Kansas, Rich Nugent of Florida and Ted Poe of Texas.
Opposition to the measure doesn’t break cleanly along partisan lines. MoveOn.org, a Democratic-leaning group that claims more than 8 million members, announced Wednesday that it was mobilizing a “major effort” to defeat the resolution. The group spent more than $1 million last year helping elect Obama, according to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
“This isn’t our responsibility,” Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, a liberal Democrat opposing the measure, said in an interview. “There isn’t a single American casualty up to this point in the Syrian civil war and I’d like to keep it that way.”
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said in a statement Thursday that he will vote against the resolution because the situation doesn’t “pose a direct threat” to the U.S. or its allies.
One of the largest camps of lawmakers includes those who want to rule out any American ground combat troops in Syria. A rewrite of the White House’s resolution in the Senate this week was meant to accomplish that, by barring the use of ground troops in combat.
“If I do support something, it would be a limited strike with no troops on the ground,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. “No Iraq, no Afghanistan, no Vietnam scenarios.”
Another camp of lawmakers in Congress includes Democrats, such as Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, and Republicans, including Corker, pressing to provide weapons to Syrian rebels in order to support the resolution.
McCain said he couldn’t support a new resolution authorizing strikes without provisions to upgrade arms for rebels, and won an amendment yesterday that would help do that.
A growing band of lawmakers, including Rubio, a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, are withholding their support, saying Obama waited too long to act in Syria.
Rubio, elected with backing from the tea party in 2010, had pressed for arming the Syrian rebels. During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Sept. 3, Rubio said Syria was “an example that when we ignore these problems, these problems don’t ignore us; that we can ignore them but eventually they come to visit us at our doorstep.”
“That’s the mess that we are left with now and all the options are less than ideal,” Rubio said. “I am a bit skeptical that what the president is asking for will provide the support needed to achieve these objectives.”
Joining party leaders in supporting the measure are pro- military Republicans, including Republican Reps. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a former Air Force pilot; Mike Pompeo of Kansas, a former Army officer; and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who has been a vocal opponent of Obama and is running for the Senate against incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Pryor.
“I’m also deeply worried that our inaction is destabilizing the Middle East,” said Cotton, who served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. “That’s why – miracle of miracles – I am in support of the president’s policy in Syria.”
– With assistance from Victoria Stilwell, Kasia Klimasinska and Heidi Przybyla in Washington and Chris Christoff in Lansing, Mich.
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