In Nevada, some 7,300 miles from Damascus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got an update on the administration’s position on the Syrian conflict this afternoon.
His aides say the Senate majority leader might be half a world away from the war and half a continent away from Washington, but he’s as plugged into the government’s conversations about how to proceed in Syria as anyone in Congress.
But the Senate’s top Democrat has kept a decidedly low profile as President Obama wrestles with whether to send missiles into Syria after Bashar al-Assad’s government used chemical weapons on its citizens.
Indeed, unlike a handful of other Democrats, Reid has not yet said how he prefers the administration to proceed. One of Reid’s top lieutenants and the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York, attended an intelligence briefing by teleconference on Thursday with U.S. officials and suggested he would back the administration if it chose to launch a strike. (Reid did not join the call, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also did not participate.)
“A limited action to knock out his capability of delivering chemical weapons in the future could be appropriate, but we have to be very careful not to let our involvement escalate,” Schumer said in a statement.
Asked why his lieutenants shared their positions while Reid has not, a Senate Democratic aide said it was too early to formulate a position. “Things are still developing,” the aide said.
The reason for keeping such a low profile, according to former Reid aide Jim Manley, is straightforward. There’s little upside for the majority leader to speak up before the president has made his decision public.
“He’s predisposed to support the president and would urge his colleagues to do so as well,” Manley said.
Still, it seems Reid soon will have to confront a question that’s gaining momentum: Should the president seek congressional authorization before launching a military strike in Syria? A growing number of lawmakers, including at least one Senate Democrat, are clamoring for such an authorization. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., recruited some 140 lawmakers, including 21 Democrats, to sign a petition urging Obama to get congressional authorization for a military strike.
House Speaker John Boehner is calling for the president to tell Congress and the public what he’s planning to do, stressing the need for the White House to consult with lawmakers.
“If the president believes this information makes a military response imperative, it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck.
There’s at least one good reason to suggest Reid might not insist the president get Congress’ blessing. Some Republicans are already signaling they would not authorize an attack.
“We can’t simply launch a few missiles and hope for the best,” said Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
That’s a point not lost on Senate Democrats. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez said that while he would like to see the president seek congressional support before a launch, Menendez pointed out that under the War Powers Act, the president has the authority to engage the armed forces for up to 60 days without legislative permission.
A timeline for when Reid might stake a position is murky. In May, Reid indicated he preferred a cautious approach to war. Even as reports swirled then that chemical weapons had been used, the majority leader showed little eagerness to react quickly.
“My personal feeling is that the evidence shows that [Assad] has used chemical weapons. But remember, we have been through this before,” Reid said, according to the Las Vegas Sun, recalling the Iraq war. “The yellow cake [uranium], remember that? There was a rush to judgment and a war; that was one of the reasons we rushed to war.”