The Senate Foreign Relations Committee just voted to approve a resolution to attack Syria on a vote of 10-7, with one member merely voting "present." But the breakdown of the voting reveals that this was in no way a party-line vote. Which, of course, complicates the issue for a media much more comfortable with a "horse race" mentality towards all politics ("Dems are up! GOP down! Film at eleven!"). For once, some complexities have emerged which confound the knee-jerk pigeonholing so regularly practiced by news producers. But maybe that's all to the good. Maybe, in fact, that's why President Obama went to Congress in the first place.
Here is the full breakdown of the committee vote, from a Huffington Post article:
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) voted for the resolution.
Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) voted against the authorization, while Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) voted present.
It's not often you see Barbara Boxer voting with Jeff Flake and John McCain. Nor is it all that common to see Tom Udall line up with Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Ed Markey of Massachusetts chickened out on the vote completely, with a meaningless "present" vote.
The resolution will now move on to the Senate floor -- just as soon as they get back from vacation, next Monday. The House committee is holding hearings today, and will likely vote before the weekend. The "yeas" and "nays" may be similarly mixed in both chambers, when they do vote.
This is all as it should be, really. The last time Obama launched an overt air campaign against a foreign country (not counting our ongoing drone warfare), he did not go to Congress for approval. Congress reacted petulantly, demanding that they should have been consulted. The House even tried to de-fund the Libyan operation, weeks later. Many a congressman leapt upon the high horse of dudgeon, crying "the Constitution must be followed!"
This time around, Obama surprised everyone by tossing the Syrian hot potato to Congress. "You want to be involved in warmaking? Fine, then do your jobs and vote on it," Obama essentially said.
Now some in Congress are whining that the president is forcing them to take a stand when they'd really prefer not to. Some of this cowardice is because they would really prefer to just sit on the sidelines and criticize, no matter what the outcome. "It could have been done better!" or "It's a complete failure!" -- depending on how the chips fall, of course. This comes from both the left and the right, it should be pointed out. Some are worried that the whole thing could escalate into another Iraq situation where American troops on the ground would be required, with all the risks that entails. Some are worried that the whole thing is so limited it won't do any more good than stirring up a hornet's nest. Some are worried that we're taking the side of some very bad people in this fight, and that the post-Assad result may not be to our liking, as in many other post-Arab Spring countries.
These are all valid concerns. War is a risky business, no matter how safe sitting back and lobbing missiles may seem now. This is precisely why war is so serious that Congress should be involved in deciding the question. Of course, the constitutional argument can be made either way -- Congress is formally charged with declaring war, but we haven't actually formally declared war since World War II. The presidential "Commander in Chief" power may be enough for limited, short-term warfare like Libya and the proposed strike on Syria. Until either the executive branch or the legislative branch blinks and takes the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (usually called the "War Powers Act") to the Supreme Court, it's an unsettled question, however. Each situation is different, and each time we've waged war since World War II, we've gone about it with various degrees of congressional involvement.
This time around, Obama decided to put Congress on the spot. The idea of attacking Syria is not very popular with the public, meaning it is a political conundrum for both Democrats and Republicans alike. Republicans are usually pretty hawkish in general, but they reflexively don't want to support President Obama in anything. There's an isolationist/libertarian wing of the party now, too, led by Rand Paul, who set a very high bar for American military action in any situation. On the Democratic side, there is the partisan wish to support their party's leader, but there is also a peacenik wing of the Democratic Party which sets the war bar as high (for different reasons, perhaps) than Paul's followers.
There are also a lot of people in Congress who really would prefer to see how it all turns out, and then jump into a time machine and port themselves back to now, so they can vote correctly and not pay any sort of political price for their vote. Actually, pretty much all of them would take this route, if it actually existed.
Voting for a war which goes sour can later haunt politicians on the campaign trail. Just ask Hillary Clinton, for proof. There are political risks in voting for or against any war, in fact. By asking Congress to stand up and be counted, Obama has caused a real and honest debate about the pros and cons of punishing Syria for its blatant use of chemical weapons on its own people. This debate is far more complex than just "Democrat versus Republican," as well. The idea of war is unpopular, and the unplanned and unforeseen failures of our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan still haunt politicians across the spectrum.
The White House has not said what it will do if the war vote fails in either the House or Senate. Their fallback position is that any president has the authority to order such a limited strike without the express authority of Congress, under the War Powers Act. But it's going to be a lot harder (politically) for Obama to do so if Congress has voted against it already, that's for sure. Some cynics have even suggested that this is Obama's preferred outcome -- Congress votes the war down, allowing Obama to throw up his hands and say something like: "I thought Assad should have been punished, but the American people don't seem to agree, so I will respect their wishes." The public certainly hasn't been convinced as of yet, so this could allow Obama to escape political consequences for an attack with little public support.
That'll be a discussion for next week, though, after the House and Senate do vote on the war resolution. For now, the interesting thing is that the whole process is happening as it was designed to happen. Congress is having a grand debate on whether we should commit an act of war against a foreign country. The public is being polled. Politicians are being forced to put their reputations on the line with their votes (except for Ed Markey, who chickened out). This is how the process is actually supposed to work, no matter how many politicians complain about it.
The truly interesting thing is that elected officials seem to be putting America's best interests (however they see those interests) above party. There is no clean and clear "left/right" split on the issue. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are monolithically voting for purely partisan reasons.
That, right there, is a newsworthy story. However, it runs counter to the media's endless partisan handicapping, so we'll see how it actually gets reported. "Pro-war" or "anti-war" in this case simply does not equate to "Republican" or "Democrat" -- meaning an actual examination of the positions taken is what is called for. The question of war is so weighty that, to a very real extent, it has already transcended partisan politics among the politicians themselves. Now let's see whether the media can cope with this development and report accurately on it, or not.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant