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Dodgy business

Lawmakers join the president in avoiding decisive moves on foreign and domestic fronts


DISARRAY: Demonstrators protest against U.S. intervention in Syria in front of the White House. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Dodgy business
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WASHINGTON—Hoping to end the whiplash induced by the series of Obama administration shifts on Syria, lawmakers are pivoting to a topic that used to make them cringe more than foreign policy: the now annual tradition of fiscal fights.

A new federal budget is needed by Oct. 1 to avoid a government shutdown, and the government will hit its debt ceiling again sometime in October. The showdowns feature the familiar script of Democrats insisting on the nation spending its way out of its persistent economic crisis through more taxes and increased government programs while Republicans push for smaller government.

“You can’t talk about increasing the debt limit unless you’re willing to make changes and reforms that begin to solve the spending problem,” said House Speaker John Boehner.

But lawmakers may find that the debacle over Syria has changed the internal political calculus at home. Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., face escalating pressure from conservatives over supporting Obama’s call for a resolution supporting Syrian strikes. A recent Pew Research Center survey said that more than 70 percent of tea party Republicans disapprove of the job being done by GOP leaders.

They also face intraparty division over Obamacare, which takes effect Oct. 1. Conservatives are blaming Republican leadership for making empty promises to stop the new healthcare program. “I’d like for them to stop thinking about their own reelections for five minutes,” Brent Bozell with ForAmerica said at a recent Atlanta rally.

In early September, conservatives succeeded in thwarting a plan by House Republican leaders to pass a temporary spending bill that kept the government operating until mid-December at current levels. At one point it included a companion bill defunding Obamacare. But the bill allowed lawmakers in the Senate to detach the Obamacare element and pass just the spending bill, and many conservatives felt tricked. “House Republican leaders have chickened out,” read an email sent by the Senate Conservative Fund.

With that bill shelved, a group of more than 40 House Republicans introduced legislation to fund the government for a year and delay Obamacare for a year, using the Obamacare savings to increase military spending.

Democrats highlight the Republican infighting to distract attention from their own disarray. But they face their own friendly fire over Obamacare. The AFL-CIO passed a resolution during its September convention calling Obamacare “highly disruptive.” It warned the law the largest federation of labor unions once lobbied for will have a “devastating impact” on the cost and availability of healthcare as well as lead to the hiring of fewer union workers.

“We don’t want it repealed, we want it fixed,” said Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America. “But if (Obamacare) is not fixed … then I believe it needs to be repealed.”

Such opposition from two fronts is why support for Obamacare has plummeted to 39 percent from 51 percent in January. These numbers embolden conservatives to keep up the fight to delay or defund Obamacare—even though Democrats in the Senate promise it’s a waste of time.

All of this fiscal bargaining will occur as the crisis over Syria—and confused U.S. policy—continues. On Sept. 10 more than 32 million Americans heard from two Obamas in one speech. One Obama argued for a military strike against Syria in the aftermath of an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack. The other argued for a postponement of a congressional vote authorizing those strikes in deference to a Russian-led effort to get the Syrian government to surrender its weapons cache. One Obama said, “I believe we should act,” while the other said, “America is not the world’s policeman.”

The president warned last year of “enormous consequences” if Syrians used chemical weapons during their ongoing strife. But Secretary of State John Kerry on Sept. 9 promised “unbelievably small” strikes. A day later the contradictions continued when Obama said the “United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”

When asked, during the administration’s initial furious push for strikes, if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do anything to avoid American missiles, Kerry said, “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons.” But, Kerry continued, Assad “isn’t about to do that, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Twenty-four hours later—after the White House’s outreach to more than 450 congressional lawmakers yielded just 30 firm strike supporters—came more reversals. What was deemed impossible and unlikely suddenly became “a potential significant breakthrough,” according to the president. Russia orchestrated an agreement to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons by the middle of next year. It was a deal that Obama was relieved to be able to backpedal into, but one that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called an “act of provocative weakness.”

The domestic wars may now overshadow the Syrian war, but that strife will not take a pause. The Syrian escape hatch that the White House and lawmakers jumped through after a fit of indecisiveness does not mask how Obama’s Syrian policy meandered from calling for Assad’s removal to working with him and Russia on a weapons deal. But getting Assad to relinquish the country’s chemical weapons stock is no slam dunk. Reports already suggest the Syrian military has scattered the chemical weapons stockpile to as many as 50 sites.

While diplomacy at the UN level slogs on, Obama insists that American action is still on the table, but he also agreed to withdraw the threat of military action in a UN resolution after the Russians balked.

“Absent the threat of force, it’s unclear to me how Syrian compliance will be possible,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressional lawmakers across the political spectrum have been more than happy to go along with Obama’s retreat from military action. Many are staring at reelection in less than 14 months, and received an earful from war-weary constituents that in some offices went nearly 100 to 1 against Syrian strikes.

In just days Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went from “without question this brutality needs a response” to “I’m not a blood and thunder guy.” He cancelled another Syria briefing, and the Senate began considering an energy efficiency bill.

In the House Boehner and Cantor, who went against rank-and-file Republicans to back Obama’s call for strikes, said Obama had not made the sale to the American people. The House passed another bill to gut Obamacare and adjourned for the week—only four days after returning from a five-week recess. Whether it’s a budget crisis or world crisis, on Capitol Hill this passes for getting the nation’s business done.


Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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