Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., speak to reporters during a press conference on Capitol Hill, on September 19, 2013.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., speak to reporters during a press conference on Capitol Hill, on September 19, 2013. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

New Lawmakers Agonize Over Their First War Vote

For newer members of Congress, a vote to authorize training Syrian rebels will be their first time weighing military action. By Billy House

At a closed-door meeting last week with fellow House Republicans about whether to support President Obama's request for authorization to train and equip the Free Syrian Army, Speaker John Boehner provided a brief flashback to the start of his congressional career.

Boehner recalled how the first votes he ever cast as a just-elected member—in January 1991—were on whether to approve the initial U.S. military action against Iraq, under then-President George H.W. Bush. He voted aye then, but was struck that even 10- and 20-year congressional veterans agonized over the decision.

Now, nearly 24 years later, Boehner has endorsed Obama's request to arm Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. He and other House leaders have been finalizing plans for the House to vote Wednesday on the president's request as an amendment to a must-pass government-funding bill, which would then be sent to the Senate.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file House members on Tuesday were bracing to cast what many considered their own first war vote—though some argue it will fall short of that because of a tight focus on training opposition forces, and a lack of authority for Obama to send in U.S. combat troops. Instead, they pointed to a potential debate and vote on a broader strategy regarding the use of military force—possibly during the lame-duck session after the Nov. 4 election—as more akin to a "war vote."

Not all members agree.

"No, this is a war vote," said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat. He said that is the case even if some of his colleagues might prefer to describe it differently to their constituents. McGovern opposes the Syria authorization and warns that whatever the congressional intention today, unintended events could cause escalation and lawmakers returning to session postelection may find the country "much deeper into this."

"Oh, it's a tough vote," agreed GOP Rep. Dennis Ross of Florida, who arrived in Congress in 2011 as part of the tea-party-powered Republican takeover, and who says he'd describe this as his first war vote. "When I went home last week, I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner speaking engagements, and I explained to them that this week is one of our toughest votes because it could lead to ultimately putting at risk the lives of our men and women in uniform."

Like many of his GOP colleagues, but certainly not all, Ross said he planned to support the president's request, "even if, in the minds of a lot of us, it is not enough." But freshman Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina said he is among those who will not do so, saying what's needed is "a clear, decisive strategy with a clear outlook on what success looks like—and neither of those has been articulated by the president."

Meadows said he'd even likely vote against the spending bill needed to keep government open beyond Oct. 1, should the Syria amendment pass and become part of that.

Within the president's party, there are some nervous members. They include Rep. Dan Maffei, who represents a Syracuse-based district in upstate New York. In an unsuccessful run for a congressional seat in 2006, he campaigned, in part, with an anti-Iraq War focus. Two years later he was elected, only to lose the seat in 2010 before winning it back in 2012.

"I told you, I'm not going to answer any questions on that," Maffei said on Tuesday, in response to a question about where he stands on Obama's Syria request.

Another Democrat, freshman Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, was more talkative, saying she had not yet made up her mind and still wanted to hear more from constituents. But she pointed to the amendment's restrictions about sending in U.S. troops and other language—such as requirements and time frames limiting presidential authority and requiring Pentagon updates to lawmakers. Those things, she said, have her believing that strong, bipartisan support will be there for the president "in the short term."

"Meanwhile," she said, "we'll be looking for a lot of progress from the allies."

But some veteran antiwar Democrats who have cast war-related votes before were being more cagey about what they plan to do, as party leaders pressed for support on behalf of Obama.

Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who had been the lone vote against the use of military force in Afghanistan in 2001, echoed McGovern in saying she too would oppose this amendment. She also complained that the Syria authorization should not be tied to the spending bill needed to keep government open. Like the Republican Meadows, Lee said she would vote against the spending bill if the Syria amendment passes and becomes part of the overall measure.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said that the speaker's intended message to members last week, in recounting his first House votes, was that "sending men and women to war is the most serious responsibility members have."

Few would argue with that. But commingling war votes with other must-pass legislation, such as the measure that would keep government from shutting down and also prevent the Export-Import Bank from shuttering, complicates matters. If the amendment passes, opponents of Syria authorization will then have to choose whether to vote against the overall bill because of that.

Outside experts on Congress interviewed this week said that, along with wrestling over risking lives and other potentially long-lasting impacts on the nation, lawmakers face yet another, less-stated concern: the potential political risks of such votes to their careers.

"Any vote that authorizes military action has the half-life of dioxin," Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker said of the political ramifications.

Members can fudge votes on procedural matters and even on some explanations for many substantive ones, Baker said. But war votes have gone on to bedevil the future political lives of John Kerry ("I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it") and Hillary Clinton, not to mention those lesser-known figures who have had to fend off attacks from challengers.

For instance, Clinton says in her new book that when she voted as a senator to authorize the war in Iraq, she "got it wrong. Plain and simple." 

In fact, perhaps no other category of vote, with the possible exception of a tax increase, may linger longer in the minds of the public and is so vulnerable to negative ads.

Because the Syria language is set aside as a separate amendment, everyone will be put on record with a vote directly on the president's request.

A combination of pressures from the president and his administration on Democrats, and warnings by former Vice President Dick Cheney against growing isolationist trends in the GOP, appear to be helping to pave the way for passage.

Rice University political scientist Paul Brace notes that public opinion about military action also plays a key role regarding military action, and provocations—such as the beheadings of two American journalists—can be a factor in shaping opinion.

For members of Congress, Brace said, "It is truly a rock and a hard place.

"Ignore opinion driven by provocation, or respond to American anger but be forced to own the collateral damage from being dragged into further lengthy and costly involvement," he said. Adding to the mix is that lawmakers are commonly told that "haste is critical," while the president "has a monopoly on a significant amount of germane information that Congress doesn't have."

"Prudent politicians will want to stake out a position that can support retaliation now but also be defensible in the likely event that such intervention will lead to more and unpopular involvement in the not-too-distant future," he said.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Florida Republican who arrived in Congress in 2007, and who considers this to be his first war vote, said on Tuesday he is among those still staking out his position.

"I do clearly think we need to do something to wipe out ISIL," Bilirakis said, adding that he is "taking everything in consideration. I'll listen to the debate and do my own research, and vote my conscience.

"You just do the best you can," he said.