Fears of wounding Obama weigh heavily on Democrats ahead of vote

The prospect of wounding President Obama is weighing heavily on Democratic lawmakers as they decide their votes on Syria.

Obama needs all the political capital he can muster heading into bruising battles with the GOP over fiscal spending and the debt ceiling.

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Democrats want Obama to use his popularity to reverse automatic spending cuts already in effect and pay for new economic stimulus measures through higher taxes on the wealthy and on multinational companies.

But if the request for authorization for Syria military strikes is rebuffed, some fear it could limit Obama's power in those high-stakes fights.

That has left Democrats with an agonizing decision: vote "no" on Syria and possibly encourage more chemical attacks while weakening their president, or vote "yes" and risk another war in the Middle East.

“I’m sure a lot of people are focused on the political ramifications,” a House Democratic aide said.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a veteran appropriator, said the failure of the Syria resolution would diminish Obama's leverage in the fiscal battles.

"It doesn't help him," Moran said Friday by phone. "We need a maximally strong president to get us through this fiscal thicket. These are going to be very difficult votes."

“Clearly a loss is a loss,” a Senate Democratic aide noted.

Publicly, senior party members are seeking to put a firewall between a failed Syria vote — one that Democrats might have a hand in — and fiscal matters.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Friday that the fear of damaging Obama just eight months into his second term "probably is in the back of people's minds" heading into the Syria vote. But the issue has not percolated enough to influence the debate.

"So far it hasn't surfaced in people's thinking explicitly," Connolly told MSNBC. "People have pretty much been dealing with the merits of the case, not about the politics of it — on our side."

Moran said he doesn't think the political aftershocks would be the “deciding factor” in their Syria votes.

"I rather doubt that most of my colleagues are looking at the bigger picture," he said, "and even if they were, I don't think it would be the deciding factor."

Moran said the odds of passing the measure in the House looked slim as of Friday.

Other Democrats are arguing that the Syria vote should be viewed in isolation from other matters before Congress.

“I think it’s important each of these major issues be decided on its own — including this one,” Rep. Sander Levin (Mich.), senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Friday.

With Obama scheduled to address the country Tuesday night, several Democrats said the fate of the Syria vote could very well hinge on the president's ability to change public opinion.

“This is going to be a fireside chat, somewhat like it was in the Thirties," Levin said. "I wasn’t old enough to know, one has to remember how difficult it was for President Roosevelt in WWII."

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who remains undecided on the Syria question, agreed.

"It's very, very important that the case for involvement in Syria not only be made to the members of Congress and the Senate, but it must also be made to the American people," Cummings said Friday in the Capitol.

Still other Democrats, meanwhile, are arguing that the ripple effects of a Syria vote are simply too complicated to game out in advance. Some said the GOP has shown little indication it will advance Obama’s agenda even after his reelection, so a Syria failure would do little damage.

“There is a constant wounding [of Obama] going on with the Tea Party on budgets, appropriations and the debt ceiling,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). “I am going to reach out to my colleagues, Tea Party or not, and ask is this really the way you want to project the political process?”

Jackson Lee said using Syria to score political points would be “frolicking and frivolity” by the Tea Party.

Yet others see a more serious threat to the Democrats' legislative agenda if the Syria vote fails.

A Democratic leadership aide argued that Republicans — some of whom are already fundraising on their opposition to the proposed Syria strikes — would only be emboldened in their fight against Obama's agenda if Congress shoots down the use-of-force resolution.

"It's just going to make things harder to do in Congress, that's for sure," the aide said Friday.

But other aides said Obama could also double down on fighting the cuts from sequestration if he becomes desperate for a win after Syria, and the net effect could be positive.

A leading Republican strategist echoed that idea.

“Should the President lose the vote in Congress, he will be severely weakened in the eyes of public opinion, the media, the international crowd and the legislative branch," The Hill columnist John Feehery said Friday on his blog.

"Unless he wants to take the rest of his Presidency off and leave the keys with Harry Reid, that means he will have to show that he is still relevant to the process, which means he will need to somehow get a victory in the debt limit/appropriations battles that are now coming close to being engaged."

— Jeremy Herb contributed.

This post has been updated to correct the time of posting.