How Obama's pause for diplomacy on Syria spares Congress, and himself (+video)
The now-delayed vote authorizing force against Syria was shaping up as a loss for President Obama and deeply divisive for party caucuses. The Russian deal may or may not work. For now, it's a reprieve.
When President Obama announced Tuesday night that, in order to give more time for diplomacy, he was putting on hold his request to Congress to authorize military action against Syria, there were arguably no gladder hearts (outside, perhaps, the Assad family) than on Capitol Hill.Skip to next paragraph
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Whether or not a Russian-brokered deal to round up and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons can be ironed out and implemented, in the short term it has spared members of both houses of Congress from voting for airstrikes that a large majority of Americans oppose.
It also likely spared Mr. Obama the unwelcome scenario of an overt loss of support from his own party on a national security issue.
Within hours of Russia’s announcement Monday that it was pursuing the deal, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid postponed action on the Syria resolution, a move hailed by senators in both parties.
News of a live diplomatic alternative and the delay of the vote were greeted on Capitol Hill as an unexpected, even joyful reprieve.
"It's great!" said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland. "It shows the strength of the president. Clearly, if he had not taken the strong stand he took [on Syrian airstrikes], we would not be here."
Informal whip counts signaled that the vote would have exposed deep rifts in both parties, with the libertarian wing of the GOP and the left wing of the Democratic caucus opposed to a move that they said could have involved US forces in a third war in the Middle East.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Representative Cummings, who says he had not yet made up his mind on a Syria vote, were especially conflicted. The 43-member caucus met with President Obama and National Security adviser Susan Rice on Monday, but did not commit to back the president on this vote.
It's even possible that a majority of Democrats could have wound up voting against a Democratic president on a national security vote – a rare outcome in congressional politics.
"We have a very intelligent and very articulate president, but I continue to be very concerned about what would be the impact on our country to get involved in a bloody, complicated civil war," says Sen. Bernard Sanders (I) of Vermont, who caucuses with Democrats.
"The president is legitimately concerned that this [Russian plan] could turn out to be nothing more than a stalling tactic ... but this is a positive development that has to be vigorously explored," he adds, emerging from the Democratic caucus’s meeting with Obama Tuesday.
Many Republicans, emerging from a separate caucus meeting with the president Tuesday, also appeared eager to postpone the vote and pursue new diplomatic alternatives, but the GOP caucus is also divided on the military option.