As Congress wrestles with whether to punish Syria, the question has scrambled what it traditionally means to be a Democrat or Republican on foreign policy, as lawmakers forge unlikely—and sometimes awkward—alliances.
There was a time when, generally speaking, many Republicans wanted to change hearts and minds, overthrow dictators, and spread democracy. Similarly, many Democrats wanted to avoid hostilities where U.S. interests are tangential and seek broad international consensus before committing armed forces.
Today, those lines are far less distinct.
Exhibit A presented itself this week when President Obama's congressional foils, House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, announced their support for the president's call for a military strike against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Adding further contrast, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, after a meeting with congressional colleagues at the White House this week, said he wanted more information on the president's plan. (An aide to McConnell said he could not provide an update on the Kentucky Republican's position, even after three Republicans voted with the Democratic majority in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to advance a resolution authorizing the use of force to the floor.)
Republican Reps. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Mike Pompeo of Kansas published an op-ed in The Washington Post supportive of the administration's proposal but also thoroughly skeptical of the president.
"We understand why many of our GOP colleagues are undecided about a use-of-force resolution. Indeed, we have reservations about the president's implied course of military action," the congressmen wrote. "Yet Congress has its own constitutional duty to defend U.S. interests, and those interests shouldn't be neglected simply because we have doubts about Obama."
Although the two lawmakers back the strike, it is far from certain that a House GOP Conference whose default position is to block Obama will get on board. In a sign of just how toxic it is for Republicans to back the president, Boehner said he would not whip an authorization vote, saying it was the White House's job.
Both Pompeo and Cotton, who is running for the Senate against conservative Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor in 2014, hold tea-party influenced views on social and fiscal issues but are a world away from fellow tea-party conservatives like Sen Rand Paul, R-Ky., who disagrees with the administration's assessment that a strike would help secure allies in the region. Paul also represents a constitutionalist wing in his party that puts him particularly at odds with hawkish Republicans. For instance, Paul on Wednesday offered an amendment to the Senate's resolution in committee—it was defeated—that would have underscored Congress's power to declare war.
"It should be made explicit that the Constitution invested the power to go to war in Congress," Paul said.
Of course, the contrast is not just seen among Republicans. Democrats are also divided. At Wednesday's Senate Foreign Relations hearing, Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Chris Murphy of Connecticut voted against their party to send a resolution authorizing force to the Senate floor.
"I know none of us want to be involved in a long-term conflict in Syria," Murphy said. "I worry that the resolution and authorization today would make it difficult for us to avoid that reality."
Some Democrats are torn between loyalty to Obama and a philosophical objection to the use of force to meet the challenges in Syria. At Wednesday's House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Democratic lawmakers raised questions about America's role in ousting Assad.
"The situation in Syria is that of a national civil war, an ethnic and sectarian conflict, that America cannot solve and should not try to," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y.
Indeed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is trying to sort out her members' positions. "Please offer further suggestions or ideas you may have as to what you can support, so I can convey your concerns to the White House," Pelosi wrote in a letter to her colleagues.
Practically speaking, aides and political-science experts say they expect the Senate will take up the resolution, but the question is unclear in the House.
The coalition of Republicans and Democrats that would be needed to send the resolution to the president's desk amounts to a vote-counter's nightmare, suggests Rutgers political-science professor Ross Baker.
"The problem the president faces in the House is not a problem of adding votes, but rather he confronts a subtraction problem: subtract the libertarian/tea-party people in the right wing of the Republican Conference and the Code Pink/MoveOn faction of the Democratic caucus and you barely have enough persuadables to reach 218," Baker said.
This article appears in the September 5, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.