Boehner Stands With Obama On Syria, But Not Too Close

The House speaker won’t whip the GOP caucus, and isn’t worried about the “Hastert Rule.”

Tea Leaves: Democrats question whether Boehner will rein in tea partiers.
National Journal
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Patrick Reis
Sept. 3, 2013, 11:16 a.m.

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.