Obama Syria Reversal Sets Stage for Fights With Congress

President Barack Obama’s relationship with Congress over Syria marked a notable departure -- consultation instead of confrontation.

It didn’t last long.

When Obama announced in a Sept. 10 nationally televised speech that he was asking Congress to postpone the vote to authorize military action against Syria, it was the first time the two top House Republican leaders had been told of the president’s shift, a Republican congressional aide said -- even though they’d backed his unpopular proposal. The aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, asked for anonymity.

The lack of official notice to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia ahead of the speech was a sign that after the brief moment of unity, acrimony among the two sides was back in session.

And it comes at a perilous time, as Obama and congressional Republicans need to come to an agreement to avoid a government shutdown after the 2013 budget year ends on Sept. 30. The House plans to be in session only six working days before the deadline, and already Boehner and Cantor have delayed a vote on a spending proposal amid opposition by fellow Republicans who want the party to take a tougher stand against funding Obama’s health-care law.

“He just cannot follow through,” Republican Senator Bob Corker, who is part of a group working with the administration on fiscal issues, said of Obama in an interview with CNN. “He’s a diminished figure here on Capitol Hill.”

Debt Limit

Along with grappling with the 2014 budget, within weeks both sides also will need to find a way to stave off a possible government default as the nation reaches its borrowing limit. Obama also needs to woo Republican support for Senate confirmation of his eventual pick to lead the Federal Reserve, a process that could begin as early as this month.

Republicans yesterday seized on Obama’s reversal on Syria as a sign that he is coming into the fall negotiations with a weakened hand politically, as the president decided to delay a strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to explore a possible diplomatic solution proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“If this were a tennis match, it would be the umpire shouting, ‘Advantage Putin!’ He seems to be running circles around this administration,” Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky who is opposed to military action in Syria, said on Glenn Beck’s radio show on TheBlaze.

No Effect

The White House and its allies argue that the debate over Syria won’t hurt Obama on other issues, simply because the fight didn’t break along traditional party lines and is unlikely to resonate in the 2014 congressional elections. A coalition of small-government Republicans wary of U.S. involvement overseas and Democrats who warned of the risk of entering another Middle Eastern war lined up against Obama’s Syria plan, likely killing its chances of passage if there had been a vote in the House.

Those Democrats, Obama supporters say, will stick with the president on economic issues, while many of those Republicans will always be lined up against him.

Representative Steve Israel of New York, head of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the ability of the party’s candidates to sell the benefits of the health-care law and outline their economic proposals will be far more important in their races than talking about Syria.

“2014 is not going to be a referendum on Syria,” Israel told reporters on Sept. 10 at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “I cannot imagine voters waking up in one year and two months saying they are going to cast their vote on Syria.”

The White House declined to comment on notifying Boehner and Cantor about Obama’s decision to hold off on congressional votes on Syria.

Job Disapproval

Obama is entering his face-offs with Republicans with some of his lowest poll ratings -- 49 percent of Americans said they disapprove of the way he’s handling his job, compared with 44 approving, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and USA Today on Sept. 4-8. On foreign policy, just one-third of voters approve of how the president is handling the issue -- the lowest rating since he entered office.

“His approval ratings are going down, so he doesn’t have the ability to dictate from the bully pulpit,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former aide to House Republican leaders. “It gives Republicans an opening.”

Lingering Issue

From a practical standpoint, the Syria issue could linger for weeks, or even months, if international talks fail to produce any real result, consuming valuable legislative time and forcing the White House to continue to grapple with an unpopular issue. Scheduling issues alone could complicate efforts to cut a deal to avoid a government shutdown or U.S. default.

“Syria still has potential of dominating a significant part of the legislative agenda from here on out,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “To a significant degree, it’s a timing issue.”

So far, the White House’s effort in Syria hasn’t done much to persuade Republicans that siding with the president is a politically wise choice. Even some of the Republicans who have worked with Obama in the past and backed his pitch for military strikes said they felt burned yesterday after his policy change.

Corker, of Tennessee, said he sent a note to Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough saying he “could not be more disappointed” in Obama’s handling of Syria. McDonough had spent much of the summer meeting with Republican senators in an effort to try to improve the White House’s relations with Congress.

Business Lobbying

On fiscal issues, Democrats are counting on pressure from traditional Republican allies, such as the business sector, to persuade lawmakers to cut deals.

“It is insane not to raise the debt ceiling,” U.S. Chamber President Tom Donohue said in an Aug. 30 interview with C-SPAN.

Though Republican leaders fear being blamed for a government shutdown, they’re under pressure from anti-tax Tea Party lawmakers who want to use the needed votes on the budget and debt limit as leverage to delay implementation of Obama’s health-care law.

“Boehner and Cantor’s support of Obama on Syria makes it hard on them within their own caucus,” said Republican strategist Stuart Roy. “People may view an opening because of that.”

Some Democrats say the White House was unlikely to win over Republicans regardless of what approach Obama took on Syria.

“The Republicans, just, whatever he says he wants, they’re against,” said Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California. “There’s no end to what the Republicans want to do just to hurt him and try to stop things from going forward, which could result in real harms to Americans, our economy and our standing around the world. But I don’t want to sound harsh.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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