By Alexander Bolton - 09/10/13 10:00 AM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) faces a daunting test of his relationships with Republicans, as Democratic defections could require 16 or more GOP votes to pass a Syria resolution in the chamber.
Reid pulled out the stops on the Senate floor Monday, where he compared gas attacks linked to Syrian President Bashar Assad to Adolf Hitler’s methodical extermination of Europe’s Jews.
Reid warned the nation would be held morally responsible for failing to act, citing an inscription on the wall of the Holocaust Memorial Museum 14 blocks away from the Capitol.
“It’s on the wall. It’s from ‘Dante’s Inferno,’ ” he said.
“ ‘The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.’ ”
Reid ratcheted up the rhetoric on the Syria resolution ahead of what Senate aides predict will be a very close vote.
According to The Hill’s Whip List that is available online, 26 senators will support the president or are leaning “yes.” Twenty-five senators are opposed or leaning “no,” including 18 Republicans. Forty-nine senators are undecided.
The numbers in the House are far grimmer for President Obama: 32 in the “Yes/Leaning Yes” column and 182 in the “No/Leaning No” column.
There is a chance there might not be a vote in the wake of Syria’s warming to a diplomatic solution where the Assad government would fork over its chemical weapons. The Obama administration is reviewing that option closely.
Reid announced late Monday he would hold off scheduling a vote on a procedural motion expected Wednesday.
The president will join Senate Democrats and Republicans at their respective weekly lunch meetings on Tuesday to argue personally for authorization to attack Syria.
The charm offensive could become counterproductive in the GOP Conference, however, because Republicans have instinctively opposed Obama’s initiatives throughout his presidency. He kept his distance from immigration reform legislation earlier this year for fear of weighing it down with political baggage.
But Obama must take up the task of lobbying Senate Republicans because a strong champion for the use-of-force resolution has yet to emerge in their conference.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), usually the dominant proponent for a muscular U.S. foreign policy, has expressed qualms about the restricted scope of the resolution.
Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who helped craft the resolution, is not making a full-on push for its passage. Along with other GOP leaders, he says it’s up to Obama to make a compelling case when the president meets with lawmakers and addresses the nation. Corker believes Obama made a tactical error by failing to identify and arm moderate elements of Syrian opposition forces earlier this year.
Obama and Vice President Biden dined with GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Maine), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Deb Fischer (Neb.) and Corker on Sunday to begin the persuasion campaign. Of that group Ayotte, Collins and Fischer are undecided.
A senior GOP aide said the dinner yielded little progress, and predicted Obama would face strong skepticism at both lunches on Tuesday.
“The president’s resolution is headed for rough waters in the Senate. ... And his dinner with Republicans didn’t seem to improve his position.”
Political momentum behind the resolution has slowed as Senate offices receive a flood of constituent calls opposing military intervention in Syria. One undecided Democratic senator said calls opposing action have outnumbered calls in favor by a 9-to-1 ratio.
Ayotte, a close ally of McCain and one of the Senate’s most outspoken defense hawks, said Monday she is now undecided about whether to support the Syria resolution. The Hill’s whip list had previously reported her as “leaning yes.”
Republican senators are not inclined to help Reid carry the president’s water because they view him as one of the most partisan majority leaders of the past 50 years.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), one of the chamber’s deal-
makers, strongly criticized Reid’s leadership style in an interview earlier this year.
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), who is widely viewed as a pragmatic member of the Senate GOP leadership, on Monday announced he would oppose the resolution.
“After careful consideration and a number of briefings on this topic, I believe this strategy and the unknown response it may provoke are the wrong thing to do, and I will not support the resolution the President has asked for,” he said.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who had earlier been a “yes” vote, is now planning to vote “no.”
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who has a history of working with Democrats, said Monday he is highly skeptical of the call for military strikes.
He argued a limited strike could embolden Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“If an attack is ineffective in altering Assad’s behavior or fortune, will it not encourage Iran in pursuing its own weapons program?” he said.
While the top two Republican leaders in the House, Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Eric Cantor (Va.), have endorsed Obama’s call to action, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has remained on the fence.
If McConnell, who is up for reelection, voices his opposition after the Senate GOP lunch Tuesday, it would make Reid’s quest for GOP votes that much harder.
The political fallout from Senate defeat of the Syria resolution could also be compounded by the passage of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) requiring the president to adhere to Congress’s decision.
Paul plans to file an amendment stating that the authority to use force resides in the Congress and can be transferred to the president only through legislation.
Reid has not said whether he will grant Paul a vote on the amendment, which could garner a tally reflecting growing opposition to the use-of-force resolution.
Obama has said he has the power to order military action against Syria, regardless of how Congress votes.
With GOP resistance stiffening, Reid could turn his focus back on wavering Democrats.
On Monday he argued that colleagues should at least vote this week to end debate on the motion to proceed to the resolution.
“Regardless of where senators stand on the merits of this issue, all should agree that we should have this debate,” he said. “I hope that all senators will support proceeding to this measure.”