Syria vote: What happens if Obama loses?

Current polls show the House opposing a strike on Syria. Obama is not saying whether he would order an attack anyway, but a loss could have long-lasting political effects at home and abroad.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
US President Barack Obama pauses as he answers a question regarding the ongoing situation in Syria during his news conference at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday.

Right now it appears as if President Obama might not win a congressional vote authorizing military action in Syria. Even if such an authorization made it through the Senate, current head counts indicate it would face defeat in the House if a vote were held Friday.

A Washington Post running count as of Friday afternoon showed 104 House members would vote “no” on Syria right now. A further 120 said they “lean no” on the issue.

“Lean no” isn’t necessarily the same as “no,” as scores of final House outcomes make clear. The vote isn’t being held Friday, so Mr. Obama still has time to make his case to wavering lawmakers.

But combine those two categories above and the total surpasses the 217 votes that would be needed to defeat the Syria measure. ABC News came up with similar numbers in its whip count on Friday. So did the liberal-leaning web site Firedoglake.

What would happen then? The answer to that question could have a profound effect on US foreign policy and relations between Congress and the executive branch for years to come.

The first and most important decision for Obama would be whether to carry through and strike the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad anyway.

White House officials have said that as a matter of inherent executive branch power Obama believes he has the right to launch an attack no matter the congressional outcome.

Asked at his Friday press conference what he would do if Congress votes “no,” Obama declined to answer the question.

“I think it would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate because right now I’m working to get as much support as possible out of Congress,” Obama said.

But there are some indications a Syria strike is unlikely without congressional approval. A New York Times story Friday quoted anonymous White House aides as saying such a unilateral course of action is “almost unthinkable,” and would surely launch a move toward impeachment in the House, which would drain and distract the administration at the least.

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken appeared to confirm this in an NPR interview on Friday, saying “the president of course has the authority to act, but it’s neither his desire, nor his intention, to use that authority absent Congress backing him.”

Would that outcome make the US less assertive in the world in years to come? That’s certainly possible. Denied congressional backing this time, Obama could well be reluctant to go to Congress again if Assad doubles down and continues to use chemical weapons on civilians.

The context of crises matters, though. Obama has also made it clear that he will act on his own if he feels US interests are directly or imminently threatened. An Iranian breakout and race to highly enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon might fall into that category. Thus it is unclear what the outcome of the congressional Syria vote might hold for the far more fraught issue of Iran and its nuclear program.

As to domestic politics, many in Washington believe a defeat on Syria would leave Obama weakened for coming battles in Congress over fiscal issues. Given how badly the administration has handled Syria, goes this reasoning, his critics will be emboldened and his supporters unhappy. A loss on Capitol Hill is a loss, no matter the subject.

“I can’t believe how badly he’s mishandled this issue,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona to a local radio show.

But left-leaning pundit Greg Sargent makes another argument: in such a situation voters will see a president abiding by the will of the people. The liberal Democratic base, which largely opposes Syrian intervention, would rally to support Obama.

“Independents, who have tilted strongly against an attack, might be supportive, too,” writes Sargent.

And the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, a conservative who supports retaliation against Syria for its chemical use, warns that GOP lawmakers who vote “no” on the use of force may be handing Obama a domestic political weapon.

“The only thing that can get Obama off the hook now is for Republicans to deny him authorization for the use of force against the Assad regime,” writes Kristol. “Then the GOP can be blamed for whatever goes wrong on Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, over the next months and years.”

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