US Congress confronts an epic logjam of its own making

US Congress confronts an epic logjam of its own making

One could easily be forgiven for thinking the two houses of America’s parliament, the Senate and House of Representatives, are seized solely with the vexed question of President Obama’s proposed missile strike on Syria in retribution for the Syrian government’s (presumed) use of chemical weapons. But there is dissension on much more than Syria, and the awkward bundle of issues may well lead to a massive legislative bottleneck in the coming months that could impact America’s future and have global effects. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look.

Watching the televised hearings that took place last week, beamed around the world by all the satellite news channels, of the two congressional committees debating the proposed US air strike on Syrian military facilities, and following the full court press of Obama’s administration on members of Congress to support the air strike after those hearings, it would have been easy to assume this was Congress’ only business. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has already affirmatively reported out a resolution on Syria (by a relatively close 10 – 7 vote) for consideration by the full Senate. In the House of Representatives, their committee will take its vote this week.

But, at this point, according to veteran congressional nose counters, even if the committees of both houses support the measure, passage of the president’s proposal remains on shaky ground in the full sessions of both houses. Yes, the Democrats control the Senate, but it is virtually impossible for Senate leadership to insist on strict party loyalty in support of the president on any measure, let alone a particularly controversial one. American legislators often value personal views or a sense of constituency views more highly than party loyalty in guiding them in deciding how to vote. In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, things may be even more difficult for Obama at this point than in the Senate.

According to current plans, the first showdown Senate vote is likely to come on Wednesday over a resolution authorizing the “limited and specified use” of US armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days and barring American ground troops from combat. This vote would come on the 12th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Then there would be a final vote in the 100-member chamber by week’s end. Offering what may be a brave face and a cheerily optimistic forecast, Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid said on Friday, “I think we’re going to get 60 votes. It’s a work in progress”. But nobody really knows because a large group of senators still remain publicly undecided. Over in the House of Representatives, their vote is likely to come some time during the week of 16 September, but the actual date is undetermined.

While the leadership cadres of both parties have issued various statements of public support for the proposed measure, most of the ordinary members, while they were back in their respective constituencies during the extended Labour Day holiday break, reportedly have heard virtually nothing but condemnations of a Syrian air strike from angry and increasingly vocal citizens, regardless of party affiliation.

The sources of such suspicion and discontent with the proposal come from many directions and are as diametrically different as “this proposal is just a pinprick measure when full-scale intervention is crucial”, to “this is not America’s war and there is nothing to fight for”, to “any involvement will simply drag the country into yet another foreign war”. The Syria vote poses a dilemma for Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress in particular.

Many had strongly opposed the war in Iraq but, this time around, they are reluctant to undercut a president from their own party. The crucial player is house minority leader California Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and how effectively she will be in marshalling her party members when it comes down to a yes or no vote. But, summing up the difficulties, even after several classified briefings congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland says, “A lot of members have constituents who have not been persuaded and I think a part of that inability to be persuaded is that they’re thinking about Iraq. That’s what I’m hearing in my district even from people who are extremely supportive of the president.”

Congressional sources and polling data alike indicates a real fatigue with foreign fighting, especially after a wretched decade of it in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recent surveys also say increasing numbers of people want to see cuts in spending on foreign aid and diplomatic representation abroad as well, regardless of the fact that such expenditures are virtually rounding errors in the totality of federal spending.

The net effect as far as Syria is concerned is that many legislators have been unable, so far at least, to find much of an upside to support the president’s wishes. Unless a legislator is prepared to embrace such arguments as “Congress has an obligation to support the president in foreign policy”, “it is Congress’ responsibility to make such hard decisions and such tasks can’t be shirked”, or
the credibility of the US is at stake with this measure”, its defeat sends the entirely wrong message to regimes in Pyongyang or Tehran over their nuclear ambitions, for example. But it remains a tough sell. This helps explain all the briefings to and lobbying of members of Congress and the appearances on Sunday television news discussion shows by administration officials, as well as multiple appearances by Barack Obama on a whole handful of different television networks for broadcast on the Monday evening news shows. And, most recently, the announced plan for Obama to speak to the nation (and, of course, the world) on a live, televised address on Tuesday evening. (Monday is out because it might conflict with the very popular Monday Night Football broadcast.)

Looking at the overall scheduling of Obama’s push for a support resolution, Politico noted, “From the beginning, Obama’s recent Syria push has been hobbled by the calendar — and the scheduling snarls only get worse from here. Obama will sit Monday for interviews for six TV news programs, which will air within an hour of what had promised to be the week’s most highly-anticipated Washington event: the NFL Redskins’ season opener against Philadelphia.” And the New York Times added, “The White House’s goal is to persuade Congress to authorize a limited military strike against Syria to punish it for a deadly chemical weapons attack. But after a frenetic week of wall-to-wall intelligence briefings, dozens of phone calls and hours of hearings with senior members of Obama’s war council, more and more lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, are lining up to vote against the president.”

But Syria is not the only issue in play for Congress. Or even the one members are spending the most time with, at least in their longer-term thoughts. Instead, Syria may well be the kind of irritating issue that distracts them from responding to things that matter even more to their respective constituencies. These include future slugging matches over the federal budget, health care, farm policy and even the possibility of new limits on government surveillance of millions of Americans.

Obama and the Democratic-led Senate face increasingly stiff opposition from house Republicans over the various bills that would fund government agencies, as well as raise the ceiling on new federal borrowing (the debt ceiling). This spending in excess of tax revenues to avert a technical government default would unnerve already unsteady financial and equities markets around the globe. Then there are newer efforts by various conservative legislators who are intent on finding a way to choke off funding for “Obamacare” as the initial open enrolment for the health insurance exchanges set up by the measure come into effect 1 October.

Given the looming end of the current fiscal year and the start of the new one on 1 October, Congress will almost certainly have to pass yet another round of temporary spending bills – continuing resolutions – to prevent much of the government from technically being unable to operate the moment the new fiscal year begins. Continuing resolutions are usually set at a certain percentage of the previous year’s budget. This allows for basic programs to continue, but it is hard on efforts to carry out longer term planning. Usually, these measures get passed at the last possible moment, as government departments go into crisis mode to plan for minimum operations and emergency, albeit temporary, layoffs.

This year, however, given the acrimony between the two parties, even passage of a continuing resolution (or resolutions) is up in the air. This is because Republicans are debating among themselves whether they are going to attempt to use this “nuclear option” as their final assault on the Obama administration’s expansion of federally subsidized medical care. The measure was passed into law by the previous Congress and eventually upheld by the Supreme Court. Part of the measure, now coming into force, is that people without health insurance must either purchase some version of it via the health care exchanges or be prepared to pay a penalty to the Internal Revenue Service.

Meanwhile, Republican congressional leaders are hoping to avoid the kind of standoff that would lead to no continuing resolution and thus another government shutdown. Their leadership has been indicating a preference for a simple temporary continuing resolution that would keep the government going, but would take fully into account those automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that have been in place for the past half year. However, a Tea Party-like grassroots campaign during the August break has put pressure on the Republican congressional leadership to stop the health care provision by means of a threat to shut down the government, although speaker of the house John Boehner’s office insists no final decision has been made – yet.

Concurrently, both congressional Democrats and the White House say they are eager to reverse those earlier cuts from that previous budget compromise, and even strong defence advocates among Republicans say they want to do so as well, at least for their favoured Pentagon spending levels. So far, at least, there have been no real negotiations between the White House and house GOP leaders on any of this. Without some kind of agreement these recent automatic spending cuts may well become the new norm through the new fiscal year (and on into the future as well), generating further future rancour between the parties.

The earlier 2011 agreement set these cuts in motion with a total federal budget of $1.058-trillion next year to operate federal agencies. Explaining this situation, the AP notes, “The automatic spending cuts triggered by failing to follow up with further deficit cuts by curbing benefit increases, raising taxes or both would pare that figure by $91-billion, to $967-billion for the 2014 budget year. A comparable spending figure for the soon-to-be-completed 2013 budget year is about $988-billion. The additional cuts looming next year come almost entirely from defence.”

But then there is also the debt ceiling imbroglio as well. According to the Obama administration, the government’s ability to meet all its obligations, including interest payments to holders of government bonds and even Social Security (old age pension) benefits, will run out in October unless Congress takes action to lift the government’s borrowing authority. But that could prove even more contentious than the other problematic measures because both speaker Boehner and many Tea Party-supported Republicans see the debt ceiling as a way to force new spending cuts or enact other Republican priorities into law. Back at that 2011 agreement, Obama acquiesced to Boehner and the Republicans’ insistence that any spending cuts would equal the amount of any debt limit increase, but Obama says he won’t agree a second time to this proviso, even as Republicans insist any untethered “clean” debt ceiling growth won’t happen.

Then there is immigration law reform, a really hot topic that may simply get lost in the shuffle of infighting over budgets or Syria. Alternatively, it could become so hot that Congress just avoids dealing with it this time around. Back in June the Senate passed a bill that would have allowed millions of immigrants now illegally in the US to stay on, work, and then, eventually, acquire citizenship. But Republicans in the house have rejected the measure that they have labelled a special path to citizenship in the Senate bill. Instead, they favour an approach that begins from additional measures to secure the country’s borders before any efforts come into effect that would preclude illegal immigrants/undocumented aliens from being deported.

If this were not enough, the startling stories about the National Security Agency’s pervasive electronic surveillance has been generating growing demands from some in Congress to limit such programs, and hearings on the issue are already scheduled. Leaders of both the house and Senate intelligence committees are already taking heat to force changes in the NSA’s authorization legislation.

And then, on top of all of this, there is growing pressure to deal with the controversial question of sexual assault in the military’s ranks. There is a proposal to remove commanders from the chain of decision-making whenever sexual misconduct cases go to trial. Not too surprisingly, the Pentagon, along with some congressional leaders, opposes the idea and it is likely to turn into a major debate when the Senate tackles a defence policy bill. Beyond all of these other measures there is also the politically sensitive farm bill that must be dealt with before the end of the year when its provisions expire, to stave off the probability that milk prices will effectively double when dairy price supports end.

By the time Congress has worked its way through this controversial, quarrelsome agenda of politically fraught measures, they and Obama may long for the days when a vote on a resolution to destroy Syria’s command-and-control military facilities, chemical warfare assembly plants and other miscellaneous military targets may have been the easy task for them to deal with in their deliberations. DM

For more, read:

  • POLITICO Playbook, at Politico
  • Obama’s Battle for Syria Votes, Taut and Uphill, at the New York Times
  • President Obama’s toughest Syria hurdle: The calendar, at Politico
  • House GOP to advance stopgap-spending bill, at Politico
  • Bob Woodward: The inside story of how Obama and Boehner negotiate, at the Washington Post
  • Fight this war, not the last one, at the Economist
  • Syria, budget and debt top congressional agenda, at the AP

Photo: U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (C) leads fellow House Republican leaders in a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, February 25, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


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