Congress does something unusual on Syria – its homework

William Douglas

Mired in low approval ratings and saddled with the image that it does almost nothing, Congress demanded a deciding role in President Barack Obama’s drive to launch a limited military strike against Syria.

Lawmakers temporarily got their wish when Obama agreed to seek congressional authorization for a strike before he abruptly pivoted Tuesday to seek a diplomatic deal with Russia to get Syrian President Bashar Assad to surrender his chemical weapons arsenal.

But for almost two weeks, the House of Representatives and the Senate did something they hadn’t done in a long time – deliberate a matter of war and peace. And in doing so, several congressional experts said they noticed lawmakers doing something that they’ve been criticized for not doing on key issues: their homework.

House and Senate members availed themselves to more than two dozen briefings and conference calls set up by the Obama administration in its uphill effort to sell a Syria strike. More than 375 of the 435-member House and all 100 senators participated in the briefings or meetings on Syria, according to administration officials.

“I think I got at least a master’s working on a doctorate working just on Syria, I’m serious,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who attended six briefings and remained undecided on how he would have voted. “I’ve now had the opportunity to be exposed on several occasions to the president, vice president, (Secretary of State John) Kerry, to (Defense Secretary Chuck) Hagel, to (National Security Adviser) Susan Rice.”

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., a House Intelligence Committee member who attended at least four briefings and opposed authorizing an airstrike, conceded that “there are a lot of people who vote who don’t know what they’re voting on,” but he noted that he saw “more seriousness” and engagement from his House colleagues on Syria.

The briefing attendance wasn’t bad for a body whose members don’t always read the bills they vote on or occasionally skip briefings or hearings. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., were livid in June when less than half of the Senate showed up for a Thursday afternoon classified briefing with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, in the thick of the NSA domestic surveillance scandal.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., a frequent critic of Congress for not fully exercising its constitutional authority, said he likes how lawmakers are handling themselves on Syria.

“Thus far, they should be commended,” said Hamilton, director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “I think they were in the process of stepping up to their responsibilities. The diplomatic route put that on hold. Prior to that, the Congress was moving.”

Congress’ handling of Syria appears to be helping its dismal public image – at least a little. A Gallup poll released this week showed Congress’ approval rating rose to 19 percent, a 5 percentage-point increase over last month and its highest approval level in nearly a year.

“The timing of the recent poll – closely following the president’s request for authorization to use force in Syria – combined with Americans’ opposition to such action suggests that Congress’ apparent lack of enthusiasm about this military intervention may be the reason for the increase in its approval rating,” Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones said.

Not everyone is ready to laud Congress just yet. Obama’s neck-breaking swing Tuesday from a use of force vote to last-ditch diplomacy efforts meant lawmakers didn’t have to take a final stand on Syria.

For a Congress that wanted in on the decision-making process, the Russian proposal has proven to be a welcomed out from having to vote “yea” or “nay” on a military strike plan that’s wildly unpopular with Americans.

“When I first heard about the deal, I remember thinking, ‘That would be good, that would be good,’” Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who backed Obama’s call for airstrikes, said of Russia’s proposal. “I think many people feel that if this could be done it could be a way out for everybody.”

Former Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., said lawmakers in both parties are clinging to the prospects of a diplomatic deal in hopes of making a Syria vote go away.

“On all sides, Congress was bewitched, bothered and bewildered, and (lawmakers) are relived that there’s a possibility of a diplomatic solution,” said Morella, a professor at American University’s Women & Politics Institute in Washington.

Cummings said the jury’s still out on Congress’ performance on Syria because “we haven’t had a vote.” But James Thurber, an American University government professor and longtime Congress-watcher, said House members and senators earned one of two less-than-stellar marks.

“Either incomplete or withdrawal,” Thurber said. “They were really feeling pinched, and this (Russia proposal) was a face-saving way out.”

Anita Kumar of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

By William Douglas
McClatchy Washington Bureau