Among California lawmakers, Syria is not your typical debate over war

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers,David Lightman

The Syrian civil war has twisted California’s highest-ranking federal lawmakers into some unfamiliar political poses.

Liberals support giving a green light to the Obama administration to attack Syria if it decides to. Conservatives say no.

And the state’s top arm-twisters have backed off for what’s called a vote of conscience.

Epitomizing the unsettled political climate, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield on Tuesday broke from his fellow GOP House leaders by telling colleagues he opposed using military force.

“He does not believe the president has made an adequate case to American people as far as what the strategy is and what the attainable goals are,” an informed source, who was in the room when McCarthy spoke to the Republican caucus, said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

McCarthy is talking to lots of members – it’s what he does all day as whip – but he’s not trying to convince them one way or another. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is sending letters and organizing briefings, but not using all of the muscle at her command.

“She hasn’t whipped this,” Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., said Tuesday. “She’s said, ‘listen to your constituents and your conscience.’”

The debate on Capitol Hill over Syria is a departure from some previous high-stakes issues that involved the use of military force. Former Vice President Dick Cheney leaned hard on certain lawmakers to support an Iraq invasion in 2002. Former House Republican whip Tom DeLay of Texas hammered members to oppose the Clinton administration’s request to act militarily in Kosovo in 1999.

Amid the fast pace of developments this week, including the possibility of a Russian-mediated diplomatic solution, the prospect for any congressional vote remained uncertain. Still, among California’s two senators and 53 House members, positions are firming up. Some who previously were leaning against military action, like Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., this week moved into flat-out opposition. Others, like McCarthy, shifted out of indecision.

Representing a reliably Republican congressional district that includes Kern and part of Tulare counties, as well as the pro-military community around Edwards Air Force Base, McCarthy says his constituents have voiced overwhelming opposition to attacking Syria.

His view aligns him with a majority of House Republicans. It separates him, though, from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., both of whom previously announced their support for military authorization.

McCarthy’s opposition also underscores how Syria has turned the customary hawk-versus-dove political categories upside down and made unusual alliances the order of the day.

One liberal member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., used her committee position Tuesday to challenge Obama administration officials, while her political opposite, conservative Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif, sounded even more pointed concerns on the House floor.

“Wars have a very nasty way of taking turns that no one can predict or control,” McClintock said Tuesday.

A McClatchy review of California House members found that twice as many say they are opposed or inclined to oppose military action, compared to those who support or lean toward supporting military action. While many members of the state delegation remain undecided, those who’ve gone public have often upended conventional ideological wisdom.

Long-time liberal Democrats, like Sen. Barbara Boxer and Pelosi, support military authorization. Both voted against authorizing war against Iraq in 2002.

“Since I came to the Senate I voted against the Iraq War, but I did vote for the use of force against Osama bin Laden,” Boxer noted at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. “I voted to support air strikes against Serbia, but I vocally opposed the military surge in Afghanistan. So I approach the Syria issue in the same way I approached those – with a very heavy heart and a very independent mind.”

Boxer’s Democratic colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has, likewise, supported authorizing an attack on Syria, though she has acknowledged “that there’s no question that what’s coming in is overwhelmingly negative” from her California constituents.

As chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Feinstein has repeatedly advocated muscular responses, including support for the Iraq War authorization.

“You see, then, (constituents) don’t know what I know,” Feinstein said last week. “They haven’t heard what I heard. And I like to believe now, after 20 years...I have some skill in separating the wheat from the chaff in this thing, of knowing where we were when Iraq was considered and where we are with this. I don’t want to see nations using chemical weapons with abandon.”

Tellingly, Secretary of State John Kerry cited the support of Feinstein, Boxer and Pelosi in a recent MSNBC interview.

Pelosi said Tuesday that the Obama administration should proceed with military action if it deems it necessary, even without congressional support, though she also said a potential diplomatic solution “is a victory for President Obama, if it’s real.”

On Wednesday, citing the new developments from a Russian proposal that Syria turn over its chemical weapons stockpile, the Senate postponed a planned test vote. Administration officials still insist that a congressional vote should proceed, to provide continued pressure.

By Michael Doyle and David Lightman
McClatchy Washington Bureau