There’s no shortage of congressional head counts when it comes to authorizing the use of force in Syria, but I’d caution against taking them too seriously. The briefings for lawmakers are still underway, and while many have firm opinions, there is not yet an actual, agreed upon resolution for lawmakers to read and consider.
That said, at least for now, the prevailing winds on Capitol Hill are blowing in an unmistakable direction.
Several Republican leadership aides, who are counting votes but not encouraging a position, say that there are roughly one to two dozen “yes” votes in favor of military action at this time. The stunningly low number is expected to grow a bit.
But senior aides say they expect, at most, between 50 and 60 Republicans to vote with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who support the president’s plan to bomb Syria to stop Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons on his people. That would amount to less than one-third of the House Republican Conference.
That would mean the vast majority of the 200 House Democrats will need to vote with Obama for the resolution to pass. But Democrats privately say that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) can only round up between 115 and 130 “yes” votes.
Senate support appears more likely, but is by no means a sure thing.
Keep in mind, the perception of political momentum in this debate has already shifted more than once – my own personal predictions about the likely outcome have changed a couple of times since Saturday – and competing lobbying campaigns, from both directions, are still very much underway.
What’s more, not all “leaning no” members are created equal. Some oppose the idea of any intervention, while others are concerned with the scope of the resolution itself, and others still are awaiting additional information before making a firm decision. It suggests a legislative dynamic that remains in flux, one-sided headcounts notwithstanding.
But with Congress appearing to be moving away from authorizing military force, and with the public against intervention, the White House is no doubt weighing its competing options.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the first option is to fold. President Obama made his case, showed Congress the evidence, appealed for action, but lawmakers turned him down. The White House could do what David Cameron did last week, and simply accept the legislative defeat and move on.
The second option, however, is that the president could launch military strikes anyway. The law may point in one direction, but recent precedent points in another – most modern presidents, from both parties, ordered the military into foreign action without any regard whatsoever for Congress’ judgment. Reagan invaded Grenada without consulting with Congress, and bombed Libya without thinking to even notify lawmakers.
More to the point, as Rachel noted on the show last night, Clinton got support from the U.S. Senate to intervene in Kosovo, and then gave the military the green light before the U.S. House could weigh in. Obama may well do something similar.
And behind Door #3 is some kind of alternative to military strikes in which the U.S. does something to respond to Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons, but not through the use of force.
Earlier this week, when congressional support appeared more likely, these alternatives probably seemed unnecessary. The calculus is quite different now.