Congressional opponents of an American strike in Syria remain scattered and unorganized, but they believe they have found a guidepost for assembling a "coalition of the opposed" in the House: a surprisingly close July vote to curb the nation's spying program.
It's still an uphill fight, they admit, given the united support of President Obama, Speaker John Boehner, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for striking Syria in the wake of allegations of chemical warfare. But those who oppose intervening say they are preparing to make their final push in the House.
"It would be historic," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an opponent of striking Syria and a likely 2016 president candidate. Still, he said "50-50 [odds] might be optimistic."
The July vote that lawmakers are using to inform their efforts came on an amendment from Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., one of the leading libertarian voices in the House, meant to restrict the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. It failed in a razor-thin 207-215 vote, despite the united opposition of Boehner, Pelosi, and the chairmen of the relevant national security committees—essentially the same group that now largely backs intervention in Syria.
That vote saw an unusual pairing of the libertarian Right and the civil-liberties Left (Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., cosponsored the amendment with Amash)—a grouping that Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, dubbed the "Wing Nut Coalition." A total of 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted for the NSA amendment.
"I think this will go down very similarly to the NSA amendment vote," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who hails from the libertarian wing of the GOP and opposes getting involved in Syria.
Massie said he's been getting ovations at district events when he speaks about his opposition to joining the Syria conflict. "My phones are blowing up," he said, and everyone is opposed to intervening. "I think if you had the vote today, while members were in their districts, the resolution would fail." Polls show a majority of Americans are opposed to striking Syria.
But Massie said he expects the White House and congressional leaders to mount a furious and effective lobby campaign once members return to the capital. "I'm concerned that after a week back in D.C. that the resolution may pass," he said. "The strategy among leadership is to present you with a classified briefing and then, when the briefings are over, to tell you, 'Now you have more information than your constituents, so it's OK if you vote differently than they want you to vote.' "
Still, the contours of the vote-counting operation are complex. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the speaker expects the White House to "take the lead on any whipping effort," and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California remains on the fence. The GOP leadership has struggled to corral members for votes far less consequential than on matters of war.
Another core difference between the NSA and Syria measures is that House Democrats will likely feel the full pressure of the White House on the latter. And, unlike the NSA measure, when Amash worked with Conyers, there is no current Democratic whipping effort. Massie said he'd spoken only with fellow Republicans so far. "There's not any educational campaign going on," he said.
In a conference call with reporters, Paul also held out the NSA vote as a model, but he worried that fewer Democrats would side with libertarian-minded Republicans on Syria.
So far, 17 Democrats have come out against authorizing a Syria strike, according to The Washington Post's tally. (Of the 17, 13 voted with the libertarians on the NSA.)
"I think the only problem here is because it's so high-profile that some Democrats are going to vote party politics over their conscience and it will be close," Paul said. "The only way to defeat it is in a bipartisan fashion, and people are always complaining we don't have enough bipartisanship around here—this would be a great example of bipartisanship if we could stop this war."
A bipartisan group of senators on the Foreign Relations Committee have crafted a Syria resolution, and a panel vote on the measure may come as early as Wednesday. The Senate is now expected to advance any resolution before the House, a strategy that Paul fretted would help further "develop momentum."
Another factor working against—and deflating—the opposition is the expectation that Obama will strike Syria no matter how Congress votes. He has said he has such authority but is going to the Congress first anyway. His administration has brushed aside questions of how it will proceed should the vote in Congress fall short.
"I think it's a moot point," Massie said. "It doesn't matter if the vote succeeds or fails, the president will take action."
This article appears in the September 5, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.