How Obama won a rare victory

Greg Nash

President Obama won a major foreign policy victory Wednesday when the House granted him new authority to train and equip Syrian rebels fighting against Islamic militants in the Middle East.

He is an unpopular commander in chief pushing for contentious new war powers from a recalcitrant Congress just weeks before high-stakes midterm elections.

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Yet the 273-156 vote, a rare case of bipartisan cooperation in a Congress practically defined by its partisan discord, gave the president exactly what he wanted.

Obama’s request appeared to face enormous hurdles from the start.

Many liberals opposed the measure for fear of getting bogged down in another prolonged conflict overseas; many conservatives rejected the notion of expanding the powers of a president they don’t trust; and the American public has long been weary of war after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in the end, Obama was able to buck some of his strongest allies on the left, rally support from some of his strongest opponents on the right, and cobble together a bipartisan majority that easily granted his request for the authority he’d requested.

How did it happen?

Setting the wheels in motion was a high-stakes Sept. 9 meeting at the White House between Obama and Congress’s top four leaders: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

A Democratic source familiar with the gathering said getting buy-in from Boehner during that talk — both on the policy and the strategy to attach the measure to the Republicans’ continuing resolution (CR) — was instrumental to setting up Wednesday’s relatively easy House vote.

“Boehner was very cooperative, that was the main thing,” the source said. “The president said, ‘This is what I need in the CR.’ This happened the day before the House was supposed to vote.’”

The source said if Boehner had come out of the meeting and voiced opposition to the president’s plan, it would have set up a very difficult fight in Congress. Instead, Boehner got on board. 

“I think that was the key development,” the source said.

Returning to the Capitol, however, Boehner faced immediate resistance from his troops, many of whom wanted separate votes on the CR and the Syria training provision. The issue came to a head during a closed-door GOP conference meeting on Tuesday, when an unwavering Boehner made the case for the package deal.

“That’s the only way to ensure the language that goes to the president is the right language … our language. It’s ball control,” Boehner said, according to a source in the room. “If we pass the Syria amendment as a stand-alone, Harry Reid will ignore it, add his own version of it to the CR and ship the whole thing back to us as they leave town.

“That means the Democrats have the pen on the amendment instead of us.  And if they have the pen, it opens the door to trouble,” the Speaker added. “The only way for us to lock out their mischief is for us to control the process.”

Across the aisle, Pelosi was having a similarly difficult time rallying members of her liberal-laden caucus who are wary that the new training authority in Syria is the first step down a slippery slope into the next Iraq war. 

At a closed-door meeting of House Democrats in the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon, the second such meeting of the day, Pelosi waited until everyone else had said their piece, then took the podium for 10 minutes to promote Obama’s request.

She began by reminding members of her staunch opposition to the 2002 use-of-force resolution that launched the country into Iraq under President George W. Bush, according to a source in the room. Then she contrasted that vote with Obama’s request, emphasizing Obama’s success in building an international coalition to help the process; the absence of U.S. combat troops; and the fact that the Syrian rebels would be trained outside of the war zone. 

“She talked about how this is different. … It was very quiet in the room,” said the source. “I think that sort-of crystallized things for people.”

Both Boehner and Pelosi insisted they weren’t whipping hard for what they considered a vote of conscience. But their informal lobbying couldn’t have hurt: 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats voted in favor of the Syria amendment.

Not that the White House was leaving anything to chance. Obama, Vice President Biden and top administration officials spent much of the past week calling leaders, chairmen and rank-and-file members on both sides of the aisle, trying to whip up support for the proposal.

“This is the biggest White House outreach effort to Republicans since he’s been president,” said one senior GOP leadership aide.

Public sentiment has also played a major factor. While there’s little appetite among voters to enter into another entrenched conflict like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent beheadings of two American journalists at the hands of ISIS, killings broadcast in graphic videos released to the Internet,  galvanized Americans in favor of some U.S. response and greased the skids of Wednesday’s vote.

Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 94 percent of respondents had heard news of the beheadings.

“Two Americans were beheaded, and that was jarring to people,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.). “And if we have an opportunity to give the people on the ground an opportunity to succeed in pushing back against that horrific kind of behavior while ensuring that we don’t have to do it ourselves? That’s the difference. I’m going to support it for that very reason.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) noted yet another factor that drove support from wary lawmakers: The authority expires along with the CR, in the middle of December.

“This is a short-term goal,” he said. “We’re going to come back to this issue again in December, because we’ve got to come back to the CR, we’ve got to come back to the Syrian situation, and we’ll see. If these folks don’t get on board, we’re out of there. That’s what I’ll vote.”