Will Democrats line up behind President Obama on Syria?

It's going to be a heavy lift

With many Republicans in the House voicing their opposition to a strike against Syria, it looks like it could be up to Democrats to pass a resolution authorizing military action.

As The Week's Harold Maass points out, Republicans are split on the issue, with many members apparently willing to cede to the Democrats the GOP's historical reputation for being strong on national security.

But the Democratic Party, which has traditionally been the home of anti-war advocates, might not be interested, which means President Obama faces a heavy lift on what is turning out to be one of the biggest foreign policy gambles of his tenure.

The Senate has a Democratic majority, and many Democratic lawmakers in the upper chamber will likely fall in line behind the White House. There are still some blue skeptics, however, most notably Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who said this week that he "was going to need to be convinced" that a strike was necessary because he didn't think it would "make the situation better for the Syrian people."

Indeed, Murphy and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) on Wednesday night voted against authorization as the bill moved out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a close 10-7 vote.

But overall, there should be enough Republican hawks, including Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), in the Senate to make the White House cautiously optimistic about achieving a coalition that can overcome a potential filibuster. Joining McCain in passing the resolution in committee on Wednesday were Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

The trouble for President Obama is in the House. If not enough Republicans join Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in supporting military action, the fate of the resolution could rest in the hands of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who will have to convince skeptical Democrats to join prominent party members like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in supporting the president's plan.

Pelosi showed admirable skill in corralling her caucus during her stint as speaker from 2007 to 2011. But that dynamic may have changed since the GOP took back the House in the 2010 elections, argues Bloomberg Businessweek's Joshua Green:

[T]he hawkish, pro-military Democrats who would be most inclined to support an attack on Syria have all but disappeared from Congress. They have left behind a House Democratic caucus that is smaller, more liberal, and still seared by U.S. misadventures abroad under George W. Bush. [Bloomberg Businessweek]

That contingent includes Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who started DontAttackSyria.com, as well as Reps. Gerry Connolly (Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who are drawing up alternative resolutions because they believe the current one gives Obama "far too broad authority."

Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) calls the White House's evidence that Assad used chemical weapons "sketchy and confusing at best," and claims the Obama administration has shown "profound neglect in exploring the other possibilities" besides military action.

There are other factors in play besides ideology, of course. Here's Josh Kraushaar writing at National Journal:

For vote-counting purposes, the most important divide isn't between hawks and doves. It's between members in tough districts and safe seats. With military intervention unpopular, few at-risk members are sticking their necks out to support the president, even those from his own party. These members are acutely sensitive to public opinion, and self-survival is often more important than taking one for the team. [National Journal]

Kraushaar notes that Democratic House members likely looking at a dogfight in 2014 — including Nolan, California's Scott Peters and John Garamendi, and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois — have either opposed intervention outright or have been reluctant to voice their support.

Partisanship, however, could end up winning the day for Obama. No matter what misgivings Democrats might have, an alliance between anti-war Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans would be a fragile thing, says Michael Heaney, a former House committee staffer under Rep. John Dingel (D-Mich.).

"I would love to be proven wrong because President Obama promised us no stupid wars," he tells NPR. "But you don't see any coordination across these groups, and you would need to see that to build a winning coalition."


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