President Barack Obama's application for congressional approval of a military strike against Syria is not going well despite the Senate Foreign Relations Committee having voted, on a barely bipartisan basis, to give him what he wanted.
The Democrats who control the committee needed to change the rules at the last minute in order to get the resolution through. Though it passed by a vote of 10 to 7 with one member of the committee voting present, there were almost as many members of the president's party opposed to the measure as there were Republicans supporting it. That's hardly a victory for the White House.
The resolution will likely pass the full Senate unless Kentucky's Rand Paul is successful in his effort to raise the threshold for passage to a filibuster-proof 60 votes. If Paul succeeds then, while a majority of senators might vote in favor of authorizing a limited military strike against Bashar Assad's regime, there might not be enough to get it through.
Over in the House of Representatives things look worse. Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor have stated their support for the resolution but have said quite clearly the GOP will not "whip" the vote. No effort will be made by leadership to influence the outcome and each member of the House Republican Conference will be free to vote his or her conscience.
Obama is in trouble on Capitol Hill. He is now reaping what he has sown in his nearly six-year-long contemptuous treatment of Congress. His Hill lobbying operation is a shambles, he lacks the personal relationships necessary to pull something as big as a war resolution off and he is already turning to Vice President Joe Biden – who served in the Senate from 1973 until shortly before assuming his current role in 2009 – to try and save his bacon.
The president, who for far too long tried to rule without the support or even the input of Congress, now finds himself hoist high on a platform built out of his own arrogance. His "It's my way or the highway" approach to the legislative process, which was barely good enough to get the health care bill through the House and Senate by just a few votes when the Democrats controlled everything doesn't work anymore. Even members of his own party are breaking with him over Syria in ways that indicate even they are perplexed by his actions and question his motives.
Clearly the president, who chose to go to Sweden to lobby the leaders of the industrialized world at the G-20 meeting – with little apparent success – instead of remaining in Washington to lobby members of Congress to support his war resolution is bumbling it. Meanwhile the Republicans, who used to be the "pro-war" party, are stumbling all over themselves, conducting a messy public debate that has caught almost all the attention of the media.
Whether the John McCain wing of the GOP emerges triumphant or the Rand Paul wing prevails in the debate over giving the president the authorization to use military force against Syria is not the real issue; yet most everyone is pretending that it is. Barack Obama was propelled into the White House on the shoulders of an antiwar left mobilized against George W. Bush, the war in Iraq and, later, the war in Afghanistan. For many Obama voters, ending the war on terror was the issue of the 2008 campaign. The real fight, the real division, the real debate is not among the ranks of the GOP but among Democrats, whose votes Obama must have in order to prevail.
Speaker Boehner has been out front and visible, both in support of the resolution and in his insistence that it is President Obama's responsibility to whip the votes for it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, on the other hand, has been largely silent. Reid has the tougher job. He must persuade the virulently antiwar Democrats within his own party who would not have been elected in 2006 and 2008 were it not for the efforts of the antiwar left to go along with Obama on Syria before there are even any boots on the ground.
Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have a tough row to hoe – unless everyone but Boehner and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell are colluding in an effort to convince the American people that Congress is really led by the Republicans.
The McCain-Paul division is back-story but it is being covered like front-page news. To be fair there are those Republicans on both sides who are shamelessly and foolishly hogging the limelight as though it were confirmation of their ability to influence the eventual outcome. All this does, however, is give the Democrats on whose shoulders the outcome really rests the opportunity to stand around and twiddle their thumbs with a "What? Who me?" expression on their faces.
Obama bumbles, the GOP stumbles and the country inches closer and closer toward a military strike on Syria that has little to do with protecting U.S. interests. In the end it may result in a wider conflict, one that will have the troops remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan – who thought they were headed home – having to make a stop along the way. It probably won't be a quick one.