John Boehner has decided: He'll vote to approve President Obama's request for authority to launch a military strike against Syria, but that's about all the help he's prepared to provide.
Instead, the House speaker is putting the onus on Obama, saying the president alone is responsible for winning the votes he needs to authorize military action.
"It is the president's responsibility to make his case to the American people and their elected representatives," Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said Tuesday. "Everyone understands that it is an uphill battle to pass a resolution, and the speaker expects the White House to provide answers to members' questions and take the lead on any whipping effort."
And while Boehner has asked his Republican caucus to support military action, he's not making any demands, instead calling the decision a "conscience vote" for each member.
If Boehner can convince voters it's Obama's job—and not his—to win Republicans to support military action, he will have partially sidestepped a challenge that has complicated much of his tenure as speaker: corralling a caucus that ranges from Republican veterans to a rowdy crew of tea-party newcomers.
But regardless of what his office says about a Syria decision, some of the responsibility for the outcome will land at Boehner's feet, because it's his decision when to put the resolution to a vote. And, when it comes to Syria, Boehner has no safe options.
If he pushes on-the-fence Republicans to support Obama's position, he'll face accusations of selling out his party's hard-liners in order to side with the president. But if he follows through on his initial refusal to rally support, Boehner risks appearing that he has lost control of his caucus, not to mention jeopardizing authorization for a military strike that—by virtue of voting "yes"—he explicitly supports.
Boehner's vote alone is no guarantee of Republican support, as the speaker has fallen victim to caucus revolts before. Boehner was left red-faced in June when a version of the farm bill failed after 62 Republicans voted against it.
And members of his caucus are already speaking out against Obama's request. Florida's Ted Yoho on Tuesday said more evidence is needed to justify a strike, and Michigan's Justin Amash—a perpetual thorn in Boehner's side—has spent the day tweeting about how his constituents overwhelming oppose U.S. military engagement in Syria.
If a strike has support from a majority of the House but is opposed by a majority of Republicans, Boehner will have to decide whether to abide by the so-called Hastert Rule—an informal policy that calls on the speaker to only allow floor votes on bills that are supported by the majority of his caucus.
But a senior House leadership aide said he "couldn't imagine" the Hastert Rule becoming an issue, as both Republican supporters and opponents of military action have demanded a chance to vote on it.
This article appears in the September 3, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.