How Obama's pause for diplomacy on Syria spares Congress, and himself

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.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama smiles for a photographer as he leaves a meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, where they discussed Syria on Tuesday. Earlier in the afternoon, the president met with Senate Democrats.

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.

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.

Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, leading advocates for a strong military response to chemical weapons attacks in Syria, said, in a statement late Tuesday, that they regretted that the president, in his address to the nation, did not "lay out a clearer plan to test the seriousness of the Russian and Syrian proposal."

Such a proposal, they said, requires an immediate UN Security Council vote on a resolution that lays out steps Syria would have to take to give up its chemical weapons stockpile, including "a full and accurate declaration" of all of its chemical weapons and "unfettered access to all sites in Syria that possess these weapons" for international monitors. It also requires "serious consequences" if the Assad regime does not comply.

Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, a moderate, offers a contrasting view. "It seems to me we have entered an entirely new situation with regard to Syria," she says. "I always felt that the administration was not paying sufficient attention to alternatives [to military action], such as more diplomatic efforts or doing nothing."

For many Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, the political peril of backing airstrikes in Syria isn't loyalty to a president not of their own party, but facing a vote sure to amplify rifts in their caucus between internationalists and a growing isolationist wing that is wary of the cost and effectiveness of US military interventions around the world.

"Just about any bad outcome you can imagine is made more likely by US involvement in the Syrian civil war," said Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a leader of the tea party movement, in an online video response to the president's address on Tuesday.

"But one thing is for certain: the chance for diplomacy would not have occurred without strong voices against an immediate bombing campaign," he added. "If we had simply gone to war last week or the week before, as many advocated, we wouldn't be looking at a possible solution today."

A Syria war vote could be telling in districts and states where GOP incumbents face challenges from the tea party right that, even if they don't produce a defeat for the incumbent in 2014 primaries, could push the debate so far to the libertarian viewpoint that a victory in the general election is less likely.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who opposed then-challenger Paul's primary bid for a Senate seat in 2010, was one the last of the top party leaders to announce a position on the Syria vote, which he opposed. "I have never been an isolationist, and a vote against this resolution shouldn't be confused by anyone as a turn in that direction."

It's not clear that the president's address Tuesday night changed any minds in one of the rare big votes on Capitol Hill that is not falling out on party lines.

After news of the Russian deal broke, the president had just a day to recast his address to the nation, which had been focused on making the case for airstrikes.

"Over the last few days, we've seen some encouraging signs," the president said, referencing the Russian plan.

But he also said that the threat of military retaliation must stay in the mix. "In part because of the credible threat of US military action, as well as the constructive talks I had with [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons," he added.

Meanwhile, majority leader Reid says the delay in the vote on the use of force is not indefinite.

"It's really important to remember that Syria has an extremely, extremely low level of credibility," he said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "So for such a diplomatic solution to be possible, the Assad regime must act and act quickly to prove their offer is real and not merely a ploy to delay military action or the action of the Senate."

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