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When President Obama decided to seek authorization to bomb Syria, he didn’t just throw the fate of his plans into the hands of 535 unpredictable members of Congress. He also made himself vulnerable to overblown suggestions that his entire second term is on the line.
Political reporters have a weakness for narratives, and the narrative of a weakened president is irresistible. Moreover, members of Congress will feed that narrative. Even Democrats. If you’re Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid, a great way to pad your vote count is to plead to your caucus that if the resolution fails, Obama will become a lame duck a year earlier than he ought to.
This pitch is both morally and factually incorrect.
Let’s assume that absent a divisive, losing debate over striking Syria, Obama would have real potential to accomplish meaningful things before the end of his presidency. An immigration bill, say. It would be perverse for members to accede to acts of war they’d otherwise oppose to salvage an unrelated issue like immigration reform. The moral argument here is the same one that made the “death panel” charge so offensive — making the country’s health systems affordable is a praiseworthy goal, but that doesn’t make killing old people OK.
But the good news for Democratic whips on Capitol Hill is that they don’t need to engage in this kind of manipulation. If the Syria vote goes down, the gloom and doom tales of Obama’s losing gamble will be false.
To the extent that Congress has the will to do anything other than vote on an authorization to strike Syria, the outcome of that vote is disconnected from those other issues. If House Republican leaders believe they and their party have an interest in passing immigration reform or any other issue, they’ll do it no matter how the Syria vote comes down.
The same moral argument works in reverse. If Republicans think an immigration bill should become law, it’s wrong of them to block it because of hard feelings, just as it’s wrong for John Boehner to kill legislation he supports in the abstract for member management purposes, or the self-interest of his own speakership.
Whether the vote to bomb Syria passes or fails, I expect some Republicans will cite it as a key reason when other unrelated issues fizzle. But they’ll be lying. The fight over Syria — like the fights over funding the government and increasing the debt limit — will provide useful cover to Republicans who have already resolved themselves against supporting immigration reform, or a farm bill, or a budget deal, or anything else.
Which brings us to the more depressing point. The idea that Obama will make himself an early lame duck if Congress rejects his request to bomb Syria is more easily belied by the fact that Congress probably isn’t going to do anything else anyhow.
Syria won’t derail Obama’s second term — Republicans will. As New York magazine’s Dan Amira put it, “After losing Syria vote, Obama’s chances of passing agenda through Congress would go from about 0% to approximately 0%. #hugesetback.” That’s an extremely wry way of conveying a depressing truism: Syria won’t derail Obama’s second term — House Republicans will.
Anyone who lends credence to the idea that the Syria debate sealed the fate of issues like immigration reform is giving Republicans a free pass. They have complete agency. And though they’ll attempt to shrink the responsibility that comes with it by connecting the Syria debate to other issues within their control, it’s a ruse nobody should fall for.
So if everything’s disconnected, and each issue creates different incentives, what should we expect when Congress debates Syria? As with almost everything in this Congress, I think a great deal depends on what the Senate does. If the Senate authorization fails, then the House is probably off the hook. If it passes, then I imagine John Boehner will have to rethink his role in the debate: He supports the strike, but isn’t trying to persuade any of his members to join him, and claims responsibility for GOP votes lies with President Obama.
That won’t be a viable position if the fate of the authorization lies in the House and the House only. If Boehner were opposed to striking Syria he could maintain consistency no matter what happens in the Senate. But he doesn’t. And so if the resolution passes the Senate, he’s going to have to ask himself whether he’s comfortable with the idea of it dying in the House, because he, unlike Nancy Pelosi, couldn’t marshal his share of the votes.
Maybe he’s fine with that. Personally, I think it would be the best possible outcome, for Congress, the White House and the country. But then those same narrative-starved reporters will have a new villain if the Assad regime responds to the development, as the administration has suggested, by launching more chemical attacks against the Syrian opposition.
Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.More Brian Beutler.
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