Why Congress moved so fast on Syria: It's the election, stupid

Instead of bracing for a government shutdown, Congress is fast tracking a stop-gap funding measure and an amendment to arm the Syrian rebels, as lawmakers prepare to head home to campaign for midterm elections.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (l.) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Sept. 9, 2014. Boehner said that Islamic State militants pose a serious threat that must be dealt with in Iraq, Syria or wherever they exist as he pressed President Barack Obama to spell out the US strategy to destroy the militants. From left are, Boehner, Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, House majority whip Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana, and Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R) of Kansas.

On Wednesday, the US House, in an unusual bipartisan vote, passed a temporary spending bill to keep the government running into a new fiscal year and a controversial amendment to train and arm Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State jihadists. The Senate is expected to do the same on Thursday.

A year ago, Congress pushed the government to partially close over spending. And it was only a week ago that President Obama addressed the nation about his plans to fight the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL. Here are eight reasons why Washington is coming to "yes" on these issues:

Elections are calling. Never stand between members of Congress and the exit doors when elections are near. Lawmakers want to hit the campaign trail just as soon as they can, especially with control of the Senate up for grabs. That serves as a powerful incentive to “get things done.”

It’s cold down in the cellar. Public approval of Congress dropped to a historic low (9 percent) after the partial government shutdown last year. Lesson learned. Members don’t want to do anything to irritate voters in advance of the midterms. Better to pass a short-term spending bill now and argue about the details later in a lame-duck session after the elections.

A short shelf-life is a plus. The spending bill and the Syria amendment run only through Dec. 11. People who don’t like the contents of the recipe have a chance to change the ingredients in the lame-duck session. On Syria, "The only thing that is encouraging is it is only a temporary measure,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, on Tuesday.

Small is easier to digest. Members of the House debated passionately over the wisdom of training and arming “moderate” Syrian rebels engaged in a civil war. But this debate was a smaller, more digestible slice of the larger debate over whether to grant President Obama authorization to use armed force in the fight against the IS. That is expected later. Same is true for the FY 2015 spending bill.

Congress flexes its muscle. In the Syria amendment, lawmakers exercise oversight by requiring the Pentagon to give a detailed report to Congress on how it plans to train and arm rebels 15 days before it starts the mission – and to report on progress every 90 days after that. “It puts a check on the administration,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R) of Kentucky.

Members get a chance to vent and vote. For surer passage, the White House wanted the Syria authorization and the spending bill, known as continuing resolution, to be one piece of legislation. No one would want to shut down the government, and so Syria would pass. 

But House members strenuously objected: Because of its seriousness, Syria deserved to be debated and voted on separately. Leadership listened. Members got six hours of debate and a vote, passing the amendment 273 to 156. Then the amendment was attached to the spending bill and voted on as a package. It passed 319 to 108. 

Alas, for procedural reasons, senators will not have that option and will have to vote on the welded package sent from the House. Some senators plan to vote no, but it is expected to pass.

People talked to each other. Behind the scenes, Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s office was in contact with the White House, and President Obama personally called key Democrats to thank them for their support, Politico reports. 

Meanwhile, House Republican staff were in touch with counterparts in the Senate, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky both agreed to back the measure.

Urgency and consequences hold hands. Why did these people, so often sharply at odds, work together? Deadlines and consequences could not be ignored. The government would close on Oct. 1 without new funding, and since both chambers had not approved spending bills, they needed a patch. The Islamic State is not a deadline situation, but the White House and Congress perceive a rapidly growing threat.

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