Syria vote could derail Obama agenda
WASHINGTON — Congress is like a seamless web where every action has an effect on those that follow, the late Richard Bolling, a longtime member of the House and a congressional scholar, used to remind young reporters.
The Obama administration will confront that reality this autumn in the aftermath of its request for congressional approval for a military strike against Syria.
The outcome remains in doubt, though there may be an even chance that after a near-death experience or two, Congress will authorize a strike in a close vote.
There is little doubt, however, that this struggle, which will occupy most of September, will affect other big issues: the high-stakes deficit and debt-ceiling battle, the fate of a comprehensive immigration bill in the House — and perhaps in the Senate — and the nomination of the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.
This is mostly downside for the White House. If President Obama wins on Syria, most Republicans who supported him will want to take their distance on other issues; the party’s base is dominated by Obama haters. Getting the reluctant backing of some liberal Democrats for military action might add to the tension on the fiscal issues and the Fed pick.
Some Obama loyalists make the case that the Syria resolution, if approved, could lead to other successes. Working across party lines might prove contagious, precipitating a search for more common ground.
“It’s too early to tell what the fallout from this vote will be on other issues,” says Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the leading House Democrat on fiscal issues, but “there will be ripple effects.”
Others believe a Kumbaya moment just isn’t possible in the Washington of today: “If a Republican gives the president a vote on this, they’ll have to go back to the base on the fiscal stuff and maybe the Fed,” says former Republican Representative Tom Davis, an astute analyst of U.S. politics.
House Speaker John Boehner, who will probably be part of a distinct minority of his caucus in voting for the Syria measure, will be under enormous pressure to move right. “Coming right on the heels of Syria, House Republicans have to get something in return on debt,” Davis says.
The Democrats, who are counting on winning at least the public-opinion battle in the fiscal war, may find it harder to depict Republican leaders as partisan nihilists if those leaders have just bailed out the president on Syria.
Democrats are worried that after using all his chits to get barely enough votes for the strike resolution, Obama — whose negotiating skills are suspect to many on Capitol Hill — might then be too eager to cut a fiscal deal.
Especially worrisome would be if Republicans demanded, as the price for Syria, a rollback of the cuts to defense spending under sequestration. Liberals are adamant that any changes to the automatic reductions must apply equally to domestic and military programs.
Immigration reform, which cleared the Senate handily, already faces a tough slog in the Republican-controlled House. As with the deficit and the debt-ceiling increase, the Syria debate and vote won’t make this any easier.
Final passage of comprehensive legislation, with a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, can be achieved only with a minority of Republicans. That would force the speaker to waive the so-called Hastert rule, which asserts that a bill only can be considered if it commands the support of a majority of the Republican caucus. Boehner will already have had to waive the rule for the Syria vote and may not be able to return to the well.
There is no rational reason the confirmation of the next Fed chairman should be affected by any of this. Congress isn’t a rational institution these days, and the president’s preferred choice for head of the central bank, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, is a contentious figure in a wide array of political constituencies.
Many conservative Republicans oppose Summers’ nomination because they hold him responsible for the economic stimulus and the rescue of the automobile industry, and because he served as president of Harvard University, a supposed hotbed of liberal orthodoxy. He has incurred the wrath of some Democratic liberals for spearheading financial deregulation in the late 1990s and working for Wall Street after leaving his position as director of the National Economic Council in 2010.
A top Democratic Senate strategist worries that the administration would have a hard time selling a Summers nomination to the same liberal senators — Tom Harkin, Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren — whom it is now trying to woo on Syria.
If Summers is tapped — he’s the clear front-runner — Obama would count on support from key Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Graham is fighting a primary challenge from tea party conservatives, who criticize him for supporting the president on immigration, Syria and for his approach to the sequestration.
The stakes for Obama on Syria are impossible to exaggerate. A loss would make his presidency appear impotent and damage the U.S.’s global standing. The president realizes this: He called skeptical senators from the Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia; he talked to one Democrat for more than a half-hour, the longest one-on-one conversation that lawmaker has had with him. The president is scheduled to deliver a national address from the Oval Office on Sept. 10.
Will he enlist former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to lobby wavering Democrats?
A victory in Congress on Syria would be an important achievement. But it may only be short-lived politically.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.