Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, once Mr. Obama’s White House rival, is appearing to be perhaps his greatest potential advocate in selling the administration’s Syria stance to a wary Congress – and the public. And House Speaker John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor both announced Tuesday their endorsement of a congressional resolution authorizing action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
"I am going to support the president's call for action,” Speaker Boehner told reporters after a White House meeting between the president and several congressional leaders. "I believe my colleagues should support this call for action."
The top-level GOP congressional announcements are coming with lightning speed following the president’s weekend Rose Garden declaration that he would seek lawmakers’ support before making any moves. Boehner had demanded as much, as had a large swath of officials on both sides of the aisle.
Congress reconvenes Sept. 9, and Obama said Tuesday that he expects prompt debate and a vote at that time. He thanked Congress for “the soberness and seriousness” with which its members are weighing the issue.
“I've made a decision that America should take action, but I also believe that we will be much more effective, we will be stronger, if we take action together as one nation,” Obama said.
Senator McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina met with Obama over the holiday weekend to talk through the president’s plans to strike Syria in retaliation for an apparent chemical weapons attack Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 of that country’s citizens. The two lawmakers will probably be crucial in persuading their colleagues that they should get on board.
For a White House not known for being particularly nimble at lobbying lawmakers to the president’s side, it is both wise and probably also necessary to have key GOP officials helping to make the administration’s case for action – behind the scenes and on the airwaves. Especially as Obama leaves the country this week for the Group of 20 summit in Russia.
While the senators said they were encouraged by their conversation with Obama, McCain cautioned Tuesday morning on NBC’s “Today” that he can endorse the White House only if Obama’s plans “reverse the situation on the battlefield.” Any congressional authorization, McCain said, must sanction a proposal that makes strides toward changing Syria’s balance of power and gives the rebels on the ground a chance to topple Mr. Assad.
For his part, Senator Graham told The New York Times: “It is all in the details, but I left the meeting feeling better than I felt before about what happens the day after and that the purpose of the attack is going to be a little more robust than I thought.”
Having McCain’s and Graham’s favor will not unify a fractured GOP, but “it will help Obama to get enough votes to pass the resolution in the Senate,” says John Feehery, a Republican consultant in Washington who worked for House leadership in the late 1990s.
“It will probably harden the battle lines in the GOP between the isolationists and the defense hawks,” Mr. Feehery says. “McCain and Graham probably should have kept their powder dry for a little while longer to see if they could bring a bigger chunk of the GOP conference along with them, but this debate was probably inevitable.”
Perceived momentum on the Senate side – McCain had cautioned that it would be “catastrophic” to the reputation of the presidency to vote against Obama on Syria – was met Tuesday by Boehner’s agreement to support strikes.
In the House, the heavy lift of getting the Republican caucus to follow suit will fall to Boehner and Representative Cantor, as well as Rep. Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who leads the House Intelligence Committee, and to a lesser extent to Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, a member of the Homeland Security Committee and chairman of its Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Feehery says.
It almost goes without saying that the House GOP can be challenging to corral. Boehner’s backing, much like McCain’s (on the Senate side), will go a long way.
Cantor, while issuing his own strong words explaining the need for military intervention, was careful to say that the president owns the political effort involved in getting lawmakers’ approval.
“Understanding that there are differing opinions on both sides of the aisle, it is up to President Obama to make the case to Congress and to the American people that this is the right course of action, and I hope he is successful in that endeavor,” Cantor said in a statement.
He added that the Syrian conflict “is not merely a civil war; it is a sectarian proxy war that is exacerbating tensions throughout the Muslim world.”
There is another way in which McCain, in particular, once the maverick candidate for president whose appeal stemmed in large measure from his disinterest in Washington game playing and affection for straight talk, could help Obama: with public support. The two have not had an affable relationship since Obama defeated McCain in 2008, but seeing them united on this cause could persuade a war-weary public to consider a limited campaign in Syria.
An NBC News poll released before the Labor Day holiday indicated that almost 80 percent of Americans wanted Obama to seek congressional approval on Syria.
With summer in the rearview mirror, Obama’s efforts to win backing from lawmakers continued Tuesday with vigor.
In the morning, he met with Boehner, Cantor, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D) of New York, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, among several others. Obama reaffirmed his decision to hold back, for now anyway, until Congress has its say.
“This gives us an opportunity not only to present the evidence to all of the leading members of Congress and their various foreign-policy committees as to why we have high confidence that chemical weapons were used and that Assad used them, but it also gives us an opportunity to discuss why it's so important that he be held to account,” Obama said.
Later Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are scheduled to testify to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.