Whatever the outcome of the vote in Congress for action in Syria, historians forever will be perplexed that President Obama didn’t immediately call lawmakers back from recess to consider the matter. The decision to commit troops in a foreign conflict is the most serious one made by elected officials. The delay in action risks now intertwining the issue with other matters Congress must address over the next month.
When Obama stepped into the Rose Garden, the Saturday before Labor Day, he said that a military strike to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons was a “vital” to national security. Observers were surprised he didn’t call Congress back to Washington immediately, but rather said action would be just as effective a week or a month later. That isn’t how people think of national security. Obama’s decision to let Congress stay on vacation another week signaled to most people an unseriousness of purpose.
On Monday, Congress returns from its summer recess and Syria will no doubt dominate the lawmakers’ time. In the week since Obama announced that he would seek Congressional approval, opposition to any strike has hardened. There is even significant opposition within Obama’s own party.
Obama is launching a full-court media push to support military action. His Chief-of-Staff is on all five Sunday shows. Obama will be interviewed by 6 TV Networks on Monday. On Tuesday, the day before the anniversary of 9-11, Obama will address the nation. His Administration’s public statements and Congressional briefings, to date, haven’t reversed opposition. It is unclear that a new round of talks and speeches will convince a war-weary public to support more action in the Middle East.
Action in Syria, however, can’t now be considered in a vacuum. Congress meets for just 9 days in September. In addition to Syria, it must also pass legislation to authorize government spending, which expires at the end of the month. If Congress takes no action, the government would shut down.
Less than two weeks after that, Congress must authorize an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling. If it doesn’t the government would no longer be able borrow money and would have to either prioritize its spending or risk default on past debt. Congress will be in session just 7 days before the government is expected to hit its borrowing limit.
The fight over federal spending and the debt ceiling had been expected to be a fierce partisan battle over the coming weeks. The Syria question changes that calculus. A defeat on Syria would weaken Obama and possibly reduce the leverage he would otherwise have on fiscal matters.
That fear seems to be driving many Hill Democrats towards supporting the President on Syria. They worry that an Obama defeat would strengthen Republicans on that they view as far more consequential issues. The overwhelming public opposition to a military action, however, makes supporting Obama solely on these narrow partisan concerns a heavy lift.
It isn’t certain that winning a vote on Syria would actually strengthen Obama’s hand on fiscal issues. He will have to borrow the political capital of individual members to get a resolution through Congress. Moreover, the military strike and repercussions would dominate the media for weeks, preventing Obama from using his bully-pulpit in the fiscal fights.
It is also possible that Obama will cede ground in the fiscal fights, in order to secure approval for Syria strikes. He is going to need a large number of Republicans to support action. One can easily imagine Obama ceding ground on federal spending and the debt ceiling to secure their votes. That all three matters are happening at the same time, virtually guarantees some back-room horse-trading, even if public statements say otherwise.
Losing a vote on Syria is an existential threat to Obama’s presidency. Losing on short-term or even one-year spending bill and the debt ceiling is not. Democrats may vote with Obama so he can fight on the fiscal front. Republicans may vote with Obama so he surrenders on the fiscal front.
On less narrow grounds, Democrats may support Obama simply to avoid a historic defeat for a President from their party. Republicans may support Obama in the interest of America’s reputation in the world. Some fear the consequences of the nation not following through on direct threats, no matter how ill-conceived they are.
Very few will be voting on the underlying issue of Syria.