House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, listens as President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Syria. Despite some early successes, both parties remain skeptical as to the administration's Syria plans. (Jim Watson / AFP)
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers return en masse the week of Sept. 8 facing a busy slate that will force them to decide whether to authorize military strikes before pivoting toward another fiscal cliff.
Many House and Senate members spent at least part of last week here hearing from Obama administration officials in public and classified sessions about plans to hammer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
When both chambers departed for an annual summer recess five weeks ago, there was no expectation that the first item on the fall agenda would be whether to authorize President Barack Obama to rain Tomahawk cruise missiles down on tens of targets related to Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.
But that’s what will confront congressional leaders and rank-and-file members — and the vote-counting already has begun.
“Since the administration can’t prove that any US military action in Syria can be kept limited or positively impact the situation on the ground, it is likely that legislative sentiment for attacking Assad’s forces has already peaked,” said Loren Thompson, Lexington Institute COO and a former Georgetown University security studies professor.
But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Wednesday he was unable to predict whether lawmakers will approve a new version of the White House’s proposed use-of-force resolution that will be altered by both chambers.
The coming Syria debate and vote in both chambers will be merely the opening act of what lawmakers, aides and analysts agree will be a busy autumn chock full of political fights. Here are four issues to watch:
While the Senate was technically in recess, manysenators were spotted last week, including all 18 Foreign Relations Committee members and a list of Armed Services Committee members. The former panel narrowly approved an amended version of the White House’s force resolution.
The panel’s resolution places limitations on how the White House could execute the strikes and how long the military action could last. The president would have a 60-day window to act, with a 30-day extension that would have to be approved by Congress, in order to launch strikes against the Assad regime.
The Senate could vote on Syria as soon as Sept. 11. It is unclear when the House might vote.
Skepticism about the White House’s plan is bipartisan. Members have a list of worries, including: Will a strike help anti-Assad forces? How much would it cost? Is Syria’s civil war — even if sarin gas is used again — really a US national security issue?
Keep an eye on moderate members of both parties, such as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. On Thursday, Collins said she was worried about Assad again using chemical weapons, this time after US missile strikes. “That’s the definition of entanglement,” Collins said.
Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress, said he “would be dumbfounded” if either chamber votes down a Syria resolution. All eyes are on House Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“I think Pelosi will figure out how many votes she needs,” Korb said. “In the final analysis, I can’t see House Democrats throwing Obama under the bus.”
The issues won’t get any less complex once lawmakers have weighed in on Syria. Next up will be passing some kind of federal spending bill to keep the government running when this fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Because the path to a final vote on a final version of a Syria use-of-force measure could take a week or longer, analysts say that process will almost certainly require a temporary continuing resolution. Such a move would buy time for work on a full fiscal 2014 government funding measure.
A multi-week continuing resolution would pave the way for work in early October on a full-year continuing resolution. There is a chance congressional leaders could attach a full defense appropriations bill to a stopgap funding measure, as they did with the 2013 mini-omnibus government-funding measure.
Debt Ceiling Plus Grand Bargain
Once the House and Senate find a way to keep the government running, it will be time for the main event: Another partisan fight over a bill that would raise the federal borrowing limit and address sequestration.
“The debt ceiling will have to take priority, otherwise the government will run out of money,” Korb said. “I think you have to do the debt ceiling and a grand bargain together.”
That’s because “if you raise the debt ceiling, you have to come up with some way to do that, like with the Budget Control Act in 2011,” Korb said.
He was referring to the debt deal struck in August 2011 that raised the nation’s borrowing limit but created the now-infamous twin $500 billion sequester cuts to planned defense and domestic spending.
That means lawmakers and White House officials will have to find enough agreement on budgetary matters to allow them to increase the amount the federal government can borrow, while slashing federal spending, and while finding other budgetary moves to lessen or void sequestration.
Senators in town last week for work on the Syria resolution acknowledged a debt ceiling/grand bargain accord won’t be easily struck.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a key player in the pursuit of a grand bargain, told reporters last week, “I don’t think there’s going to be much spillover” of good or ill will from the Syria debate to fiscal debates.
But Korb and other analysts say if Congress approves a Syria measure, and the operation goes smoothly, the chilly partisan climate in Washington could thaw, allowing for the elusive grand fiscal bargain to finally be achieved.
“I do think the fact [House Speaker] John Boehner and [House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor are working with the White House will help,” Korb said. “The same thing is true in the Senate with [GOP Sens.] John McCain and Lindsey Graham.”
What happens if a grand bargain can’t be reached?
“Policymakers are planning to cut military research and procurement accounts by a staggering 16 percent if the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act are triggered in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1,” Thompson said. A cut that large “would force the Pentagon to abandon or drastically scale back many of its biggest weapons programs,” he added.
It is increasingly apparent that the Senate might not take up its fiscal 2014 defense authorization or appropriations bills until after the new fiscal year begins.
The top line of those bills is directly tied to congressional action — or inaction — on addressing the across-the-board defense and domestic cuts. That means there is little reason for the Senate to take action on its defense bills because neither accounts for another $50 billion Pentagon budget cut.
“The key thing is the sequester. All the bills before Congress do not assume another sequester,” Korb said, adding Pentagon officials have “gone to Capitol Hill and talked about the impact, but not what they’d cut. So you’ve got to have some clarity.”