A decisive vote against President Obama's plan for strikes in Syria would cement a sharp shift by the Republican Party away from the hawkish military posture it adopted after the terrorist attacks that occurred 12 years ago this week.
That change is worrying the party’s more interventionist voices, who say the GOP risks losing its image as the “party of national defense” with a turn toward isolationism.
“Right now, it looks pretty bad,” New York Rep. Pete King, a Republican hawk who supports a strike on Syria, said of the House vote, which could come next week.
If Obama is to win a vote in the Republican-controlled House, he will have to rely on solid backing from Democrats. Heading into the weekend, fewer than a dozen House Republicans had come out in favor of a strike, while more than 100 were leaning against or outright opposed to an authorization of force, according to The Hill’s Whip List. Other tallies suggested even more House Republicans were opposed to the plan.
“It’s probably an indication that the party has become less internationalist and more isolationist,” King said. “But it’s not a true test because Obama has handled it so badly.”
Like King, other Republicans who support a military strike are likely to blame Obama if the vote fails. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are supporting the resolution, but they are not twisting Republican arms and have said it is the White House’s job to make the case to Congress and the public.
A House GOP aide for a hawkish Republican rejected the view that the vote would reflect the strength of isolationists in the party. The aide said that multiple defense hawks have thus far declined to support the Syria action due to sequestration cutting military funds.
“You can be a hawk and be against use of force if you think that you are not properly maintaining your force,” the aide said. “If this goes down, it isn’t a victory for anybody. It’s a failure on a part of the commander in chief and a pretty big one.”
Obama plans to address the nation Tuesday, the White House announced Friday.
“Members of Congress represent the views of their constituents, and only a president can convince the public that military action is required,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. “We only hope this isn’t coming too late to make the difference.”
A Republican vote against military action would not be unprecedented. In 1999, a Republican majority in the House voted, 187-31, to oppose President Clinton’s military campaign in Kosovo, in what Republicans denounced as the “Clinton-Gore war.”
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, congressional Republicans voted in near-lockstep with President George W. Bush to enact far-reaching national security programs like the Patriot Act and to authorize the military invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq.
Yet it is clear that libertarian Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) are gaining influence. Amash’s amendment to curtail surveillance programs by the National Security Agency nearly passed the House with the support of 94 Republicans and a majority of Democrats. And in a symbolic rebuke in 2011, just eight House Republicans voted to support the military mission Obama launched in Libya without seeking congressional authorization.
“There is a realignment going on within the GOP,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, the D.C.-based Tea Party group that announced on Friday it would score a vote opposing the authorization of force as a “key vote.” FreedomWorks has typically focused on domestic issues like lower spending and taxes, but in recent months has begun to weigh in more on national security and foreign policy issues.
“I don’t think it’s isolationism,” Kibbe said. “I think it’s a more practical, strategic consideration of what America can and should do — part of it is the fiscal issues we have at home. The U.S. can’t project strength abroad if it is bankrupt here at home.”
The principles of constitutional conservatism and limited government, he argued, “probably reflects a more cautious foreign policy, for very practical reasons. Can we afford this?”
—Jeremy Herb contributed.