President Obama’s efforts to win congressional approval of a U.S. surgical strike against Syria likely will wash away most other key policy issues on Capitol Hill this fall.
Matters of war and peace typically take precedent over virtually all other concerns. The lengthy debates and votes scheduled in the House and Senate for the coming week or two will consume precious time that was previously set aside to resolve thorny fiscal and domestic issues at the heart of the president’s second-term agenda.
Last weekend, Obama announced that he would seek congressional approval for “measured” military action against the Syrian government in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons last month against its own people. Until then, the fall was shaping up as another bruising battle over spending policy, the debt ceiling, Obamacare, immigration reform, agriculture subsidies and food stamps.
Congress no longer has all of September to negotiate a 2014 budget to kick off the next fiscal year, which starts on October 1. This most likely indicates that Obama will need to follow the recent strategy championed by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) of a brief stopgap measure such as a continuing resolution.
FROM THE ‘RED LINE’ INTO RED INK
Obama’s threat to punish Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for crossing the “red line” of chemical warfare was certain to hang over all other proceedings on Capitol Hill, but until recently there were few hints that Syria would dominate the landscape after the August recess.
“I don’t see how they stuff all of this agenda – which they have made very little progress on for the last eight months – into the end of this year,” said Steve Bell, senior director of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “They don’t have enough time to really do anything about changes they might want to make to Obamacare, or even getting into conference on an immigration bill.”
“I think things are going to be consumed again by a combination of fiscal-debt things, and now the Syrian situation on top of it,” Bell added.
However, a spokesman for Boehner insisted today that Congress will be able to juggle the Syrian debate with its other pressing business. “We are confident we can address a resolution on the use of force in Syria and still meet our other obligations in a fiscally-responsible manner,” said Michael Steel, the spokesman.
Congress and the Obama administration are dangerously on track for another fiscal cliff this fall – with the very real potential for another government shutdown or a first-ever default on the U.S. debt. Yet for the next two weeks at least, that looming fiscal crisis will be an afterthought as Obama and senior administration officials make a public case for high-risk intervention into a Syrian civil war.
Obama clearly enjoys congressional support for intervening in Syria. Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) each endorsed the measure on Tuesday, but the vast majority of House members have yet to reach a final decision on the resolution, according to tracking by CNN.
“The use of these [chemical] weapons has to be responded to—only the United States has the capability and capacity to stop Assad and to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated,” Boehner said after a White House meeting.
The administration is waging a “flood the zone” campaign to persuade lawmakers to authorize the military action. Obama enlisted the support of Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina during a crucial White House meeting on Monday. Both worry that a narrowly worded resolution—a distinct possibility that limits military options—will hamstring Obama.
Obama said he is “confident” that he can overcome the concerns of congressional leaders, who are wary of military commitments with unclear objectives, and that he knows the American public has been exhausted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama said his plan to launch airstrikes also “fits into a broader strategy” of strengthening the Syrian opposition and ultimately driving Assad from power.
Later today, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will make the administration’s case for attack during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
This article was updated at 3:48 p.m.