Alan Lowenthal has a headache.
Who can blame him? The freshman House member, a California Democrat, is genuinely torn—torn up, really—over whether to vote for military strikes against Syria. After a classified briefing Wednesday in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he was heading back to Long Beach, no closer to a decision than before.
“This is a very pained discussion,” he said. “There are no good answers, and there are very grave consequences no matter what we do. There’s a moral dilemma about the use of chemical weapons—which are just terrible—by a dictator. On the other hand, there are consequences that we’ve seen when we involve ourselves, especially unilaterally, and we could put ourselves tremendously at risk.”
Perhaps the most unenviable job in the world these days is to be a member of the Congress wrestling with what to do about the crisis in Syria. There are fierce, competing pressures swirling around these fence-sitters, depending on their rank, party affiliation, constituents’ demands, foreign policy orientation, and, yes, even their reelection prospects or ambitions for higher office. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called it a “vote of conscience,” suggesting that politics won’t come into play, but everyone knows that’s impossible in such a highly polarized environment and with midterms a little over a year away.
Liberal Democrats such as Lowenthal have a natural resistance to war, but they also want to back up one of their own in the White House. Then there are the polls showing that a majority of voters oppose military action. Of the 653 e-mails, phone calls, and social-media comments Lowenthal’s office has received, only 11 favor strikes.
Also weighing on him and other members is Israel’s security. As a Jew, Lowenthal said, he’s particularly sensitive to the horrific images of innocent people being gassed. But does bombing Syria increase or decrease the threat that its ally, Iran, poses to Israel? Lowenthal isn’t sure.
Republicans feel a different set of pressures. Some view the president’s decision to ask Congress for authority as a trap, laying the groundwork for sharing the blame. “A lot of people in Congress wish he had not bucked it to them,” said Republican lobbyist Charlie Black. Siding with a Democratic president could be a major liability for Republican members facing primary challengers next year or contemplating their party’s White House nomination in 2016. “There’s almost a reflexive impulse among Republicans to oppose anything Obama is for,” said Mike McCurry, who was a State Department spokesman and a press secretary for President Clinton. Among the potential GOP presidential candidates, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas have denounced Obama’s plan; Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida voted against military force as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.
Such votes could emerge as key campaign issues three years from now. Just ask former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who voted with dozens of other Democrats to go to war in Iraq in 2002. What seemed like a safe vote at the time, amid a certain amount of post-9/11 patriotic fervor, turned toxic in the Democratic presidential primary six years later.
Clinton, who went on to become Obama’s secretary of State, came out in support of military action in Syria this week.
But there was no cloaking this move in 9/11 unity. “Before the next presidential election, we’ll know which side was right on Syria and which side was wrong,” said Republican consultant Steve Schmidt, who advised 2008 nominee John McCain.
In a sign that some Republicans are putting their feelings about the White House aside, House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor are backing Obama’s call for military action. That Boehner, Cantor, Pelosi, and Obama are on one side, and Paul, Rubio, and Cruz are on the other—along with liberal Democrats such as Reps. Charlie Rangel of New York and Alan Grayson of Florida—makes it starkly clear that this is no party-line vote. The old rules, under which Democrats resist military entanglements and Republicans champion foreign intervention, no longer apply. That leaves members even more isolated and confused.
Lowenthal could never have contemplated that the Democratic president who won election opposing the war in Iraq would urge him to green-light a missile strike in another part of the Middle East. Nor could Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., have envisioned the split in his party over foreign intervention.
“Of course it matters what the speaker of the House says, but it also matters what most of the members of my community say, and my constituents from left to right oppose involvement,” Gardner said. “In the end, I will vote according to what I believe is right.”
Gardner insists the vote “transcends politics.” With the lives of women and men in uniform at stake, this isn’t like voting on the farm bill or the debt ceiling. “This vote is in a category by itself,” he said. “You can’t compare it to any other vote.”
The complexities of the crisis in Syria make it difficult to calculate political advantage. So a debate laced with politics, in some respects, is somehow liberated from politics. That makes the upcoming vote all the more unpredictable. Even the large majority of Americans wearily fed up with the dysfunction in Congress will be watching closely. No one has the luxury of turning away.