What Does It Mean to Be a Democrat or Republican on Syria?

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Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell address the audience at the 50th annual Kentucky Country Ham Breakfast, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds in Louisville, Ky.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Sept. 4, 2013, 3:23 p.m.

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.

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