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Syria & the Autumn Legislative Showdown

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The capital is currently consumed by the soon-to-be-considered Syria military resolution. However, President Obama’s decision to seek congressional authority for a military strike on the Assad regime adds significant complications and uncertainties to an already acrimonious fall legislative agenda that could have a dramatic impact on the nation as a whole as we prepare to close out the year.

Before POTUS dramatically shifted course on Syria and sought a congressional vote, both Republicans and Democrats were preparing for an epic showdown on the FY 2014 federal budget and the need to increase the debt limit, actions that must occur in the next 5-6 weeks. Resolution of these larger issues will necessarily inform follow-up action on the continuing, thorny challenges of the Sequester, the pressing need for entitlement and tax reform to boost the economy and reduce joblessness, and above all else, an interim solution to the epic miasma that has become of Obamacare implementation. In addition, the House must also decide the fate of the Farm Bill – which failed unexpectedly in the spring, and what form, if any, the House will take up immigration reform, which has already passed the Senate.

It is a very full plate, yet suddenly, all these votes are tied, in certain degrees, to the outcome on Syria.

Solid House Republican opposition to the Syria strike will do nothing to improve the already strained relationship between the Administration and Speaker Boehner’s caucus.

If the House successfully blocks a Syria resolution, dealing an astonishing setback to the President, Tea Party conservatives may well feel emboldened to up the ante for any deal on financial issues – including but not limited to delays in Obamacare implementation, as the president struggles with weak political support. At the same time, there is no reason to believe that an embittered White House, embarrassed by a loss on Syria, would not draw a bright – and this time, very serious – red line on any domestic concessions, and take a new crisis all the way to the end to force the GOP to show its cards. Such gamesmanship would have a cascading, negative impact on the economy, while efforts to pass immigration reform or other priority bills would collapse in mutual recrimination.

As bad a result as that would be, much depends on President Obama’s reaction if Congress fails to approve a Syria military resolution. Since the President announced his intention to take military action in Syria, he has indelicately tried to balance two mutually exclusive notions; 1) that he has authority to act unilaterally on Syria – without the blessing of Congress – under his power as Commander-in-Chief, and, 2) that a congressional vote was necessary to secure popular legitimacy. Presidential protestations to the contrary, it cannot be both – and the Administration has already made its bed by seeking a congressional vote, whether he believes it or not.

However, if the President disregards a negative vote by Congress and launches an attack anyway, he will almost certainly trigger a genuine constitutional crisis of his own making. Not only would all legislative action come to a standstill, amid Republican (and perhaps some Democratic) fury. In addition, President Obama could face what was once unthinkable – impeachment. The first African-American president facing impeachment from an overwhelmingly white, Republican controlled House – regardless of the seriousness of the underlying case – would almost certainly trigger a political and cultural crisis for the United States, writ large.

There is of course, another option.

Congress could – by the thinnest margins – approve a Syria military resolution, and President Obama could immediately order the strikes.

It is very important to remember that public opinion is rarely ever written in stone, even when there are formidable majorities. This is especially true with military action. American opinions of military action change when the armed forces are actually committed to battle. There is still a strong “rally around the flag” phenomenon in the US, and citizens, at least initially, do not like to criticize military action when Americans are in combat.

If the strikes that Obama launches are more robust than what was advertised initially and show some success in changing the tempo on the battlefield between rebels and the Syrian government, Americans could well change their minds on the operation and what constitutes a US military success. This would not only put House Republicans (and all those who opposed military action) in a very difficult political position (failing to support the President), it would significantly enhance the President’s negotiating leverage on all the issues that Congress must tackle this fall, and create a political minefield for the GOP.

At this point, there is no way to know how events will play out. But no one should assume that anything but the highest stakes are now on the table.

Buckle up for a very uncertain ride.

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