Showdowns and Shutdowns

Why the Syria debate on Capitol Hill could get tripped up over partisan fiscal battles.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In his quite stunning speech on Saturday afternoon, the president was right about the letter of the law and the spirit of the Constitution. The War Powers Act does not require the president to get congressional permission before launching cruise missiles at Syria — but if we are still engaged in military action 60 days later, it is another matter. Yet the fact remains that the spirit of the Constitution would be violated if the president acted unilaterally at a time when there is no urgency or emergency. War powers are deeply entangled between and among the branches, even if America has had a slew of conflicts and long-lasting, all-out wars that never got a declaration of war from Congress. In that sense, it is better, in the long run, to assert appropriate presidential prerogatives and still bow in the direction of the legislative branch.

Given the scope of the president’s proposed actions, the delay until perhaps mid-September is not apt to be particularly consequential. Contrary to what critics like Charles Krauthammer assert, international intelligence on Syria is strong enough that we can likely track any significant movement of chemical weapons or other materiel; and the ability we have to strike Syrian air bases and command-and-control facilities means that we can — at any time — inflict deep damage on Assad’s regime and make it clear that there is a real and meaningful penalty for despicable conduct.

The risk here comes from other quarters. Let us assume the president did this both because he believes that going to Congress is the right thing to do, and because having a congressional imprimatur would not only add to the legitimacy of any action, but would also deter or at least dilute any congressional second-guessing. If that is true, there is an assumption that Congress will accept the White House resolution.

To be sure, there are solid reasons for that assumption. When forced off the sidelines, members of Congress have to move beyond easy criticism to confronting the harsh reality of the consequences of inaction for American credibility and prestige — not just for Barack Obama. The fact that the resolution is drawn narrowly, along with the powerful case Secretary of State John Kerry made and the power of the president’s pledge, make those consequences severe for Congress as well. For all its bluster, and the frequent demands by congressional leaders and members to apply the War Powers Resolution, when faced with a requirement to act, Congress has always blinked and deferred to the president.

For several reasons, however, this time is much dicier. One, Congress and the country are war weary after far more than a decade of debilitating conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and skeptical, if not cynical, about any promises to keep the next one very limited. Two, there is a new and powerful bipartisan coalition developing on foreign and national security policy, pairing liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans who are want deep cuts in defense spending, a serious curtailment of aggressive intelligence gathering, and a retrenchment of American power and involvement abroad.

But there are two other reasons that spell even more serious trouble for the president. First is the deep and growing tribalism that has taken over American politics — leaving foreign and national security policy practically the only areas where there is a bipartisan coalition, but in this case the wrong one. That may combine in a toxic fashion with the almost-uncontrollable desire by a large number of Republicans to oppose the president no matter what, undermine his policies, sabotage the laws enacted during his tenure, and inflict failure on him wherever possible. If that sentiment prevails for only a sliver of Republican lawmakers who otherwise might accept the resolution, it is trouble.

Then there is the overload of business on the congressional agenda when the two houses return on Sept. 9 — with only nine legislative days scheduled for action in the month. We have serious confrontations ahead on spending bills and the debt limit, as the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 and the debt ceiling approaches just a week or two thereafter. Before the news that we would drop everything for an intense debate on whether to strike militarily in Syria, Congress-watchers were wondering how we could possibly deal with the intense bargaining required to avoid one or more government shutdowns and/or a real breach of the debt ceiling, with devastating consequences for American credibility and the international economy.

Beyond the deep policy and political divisions, Republican congressional leaders will likely use both a shutdown and the debt ceiling as hostages to force the president to cave on their demands for deeper spending cuts. Avoiding this end-game bargaining will require the unwavering attention of the same top leaders in the executive and legislative branches who will be deeply enmeshed in the Syria debate. The possibility — even probability — of disruptions caused by partial shutdowns could complicate any military actions. The possibility is also great that the rancor that will accompany the showdowns over fiscal policy will bleed over into the debate about America and Syria.

A full and robust conversation about what to do in the face of Bashar al-Assad’s unspeakably evil actions — with powerful interventions by President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry — might instead have a positive impact, in the same way that the deeply emotional extended congressional debate during the George H.W. Bush presidency about going into the first Iraq war was a high point for the legislative branch. This president might, in fact, prevail with bipartisan support in both houses. That might even provide a modest lubricant for movement to avoid the insanity of government shutdowns or a debt ceiling breach. But the risks of more damaging outcomes are uncomfortably high.

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