While Congress, yawning and stretching its arms after the August recess, is just starting to figure out how it wants to respond to President Obama's call on Saturday for a vote on punitive strikes on Syria, several distinct contingents have emerged in the Congressional debate, each represented by a familiar face on Capitol Hill.
The Administration contingent
As we reported over the weekend, the administration released a draft authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that it explicitly intended to be used as a starting point for Congress' discussion. The proposed AUMF is broad, allowing Obama to "use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria," to prevent proliferation of the weapons and their use against the U.S. and its allies. It's the case Obama made in his speech: that the country must demonstrate that such use is not acceptable. (Remember that the government defines WMD surprisingly loosely.)
To make the broad case for action, Obama met with a broad range of Congressional leaders on Tuesday morning, part of what The Wall Street Journal dubbed his "full court press." During that meeting, the president assured Congress that the operation "is not Iraq; this is not Afghanistan."
The Amash-Paul "no strikes" contingent
But until the AUMF is finalized, its actual extent isn't clear. The debate over action is Syria is largely-but-not-entirely esoteric, with the exception of those who oppose any action outright.
The most prominent opponents of taking action in Syria are Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan — who lead an ad hoc insurrection against NSA metadata collection — and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, whose opposition follows closely in the tradition of anti-interventionism set by his father, the former representative from Texas. Amash, it's important to note, has not committed to opposing any action. Over the next two days, he's seeking input from constituents on the issue, though he wasn't convinced by the administration's classified briefing on Saturday.
Existing lists of the positions held by members of Congress, like this one, at The Washington Post, hew to the yes-or-no question — understandably, given that there's no finalized authorization on the table. That said, the Post indicates that three senators will oppose action (including Paul and Ted Cruz of Texas), as will 32 members of the House, twelve of them Democrats. ThinkProgress has a different tally, indicating that 120 members of the House will oppose or are considering opposing any AUMF.
Opponents of any action will have some perhaps-unappreciated support in their lobbying efforts. The Hill reports that Russian legislators may travel to the United States to lobby Congress against any strikes.
The Reid-Menendez-Leahy "limited strikes" contingent
The first attempt to revise the president's proposed AUMF appears to stem from the Senate's Democratic leadership on the issue. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Menendez of New Jersey are drafting a more limited AUMF for consideration by the Senate, according to Politico.
Some of the options being considered for the revised Authorization for the Use of Military Force include a 60-day period for Obama to launch “narrow, limited” strikes against Assad’s regime with the potential for a 30-day extension of that deadline.
Language barring the insertion of U.S. ground troops — but crafted to allow special forces operations or the rescue of a downed American flier, for instance — is also being considered, the sources said.
Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, who last week publicly endorsed limited strikes, is apparently joining his Democratic colleagues in developing the revisions. As is Vermont's Patrick Leahy, Politico reported separately. Such tailoring would be in line with the president's suggestion during his speech last week, seeking strikes "limited in duration" and excluding the use of ground forces. On Monday night, an administration official expressed support for more closely tailored language.
The Graham-McCain "more than strikes" contingent
The president gave other senators a different impression in a meeting on Monday. Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had previously suggested that they might oppose something like the more-constrained Reid-Menendez proposal, but following the one-on-one session, railed against the do-nothing contingent.
That may in part be because McCain emerged from the meeting thinking that the president was open to a more expansive involvement in the conflict. "I don’t think it’s an accident that the aircraft carrier is moving over in the region," he told reporters, suggesting that a series of remote strikes by cruise missiles was likely not to be the only use of force the president would end up enjoying. (This is unlikely to sway Paul, who derided the idea of a "piddly attack with a few cruise missiles.")
The "I'm Running in 2016" contingent
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — unlike his colleagues Paul and Cruz, all of whom have been identified as possible candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 — has been much more vague about where he stands. Last week, Rubio praised Obama's call for a Congressional vote, then suggesting generic skepticism about strikes, according to The Hill. He has not taken a position on the president's existing AUMF proposal, but the Post lists him as leaning no.
And then there's the Democratic heavyweight Hillary Clinton, who has been silent on the issue. Unlike possible candidates who are in Congress, Clinton — as a non-candidate (at this point) and non-elected official — has no pressing reason to offer an opinion, and one very good reason not to: she doesn't want to undermine her replacement. If the existing debate over the use of force is any indication, Clinton is in a tremendously enviable position.