WASHINGTON – For three of the four members of Maine’s congressional delegation, the upcoming decision on Syria will be the first time they will vote on whether to authorize the president to use military force.

Such votes are often politically risky, as evidenced by the fallout to this day over who voted which way on authorization for the invasion of Iraq. But for 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who was still “Candidate Michaud” during the October 2002 Iraq vote, Syria could be especially risky as he heads into a tight race for governor.

The “overwhelming majority” of people who have contacted Michaud’s offices oppose U.S. military operations against Syria, according to the congressman. Meanwhile, an estimated 98 percent of those contacting Rep. Chellie Pingree’s 1st District offices are opposed.

Voting “yes” on a resolution authorizing military strikes — as President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi want Democrats to do — could subject Michaud to voter backlash in 2014, especially if the airstrikes fail or spark a larger conflict beyond Syria’s borders.

That might be particularly problematic in more liberal southern Maine, an area where one of his opponents, independent Eliot Cutler, is already well known thanks to his second-place finish in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Cutler declined to comment Friday on the Syria issue.

Voting “no,” on the other hand, would upset those who believe the Assad government must be punished for its alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians.

A moderate Democrat representing Maine’s more conservative northern district, Michaud insists he is still undecided. In a recent interview, however, Michaud seemed hesitant to approve military strikes as he insisted the U.S. “cannot be the police force for the world” and talked about possible retaliation against Israel or other allies.

Like others, he also expressed fears of getting embroiled in a wider conflict after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Having been at Walter Reed [Medical Center] and seeing my constituents at Walter Reed, I understand that the decisions made by Congress and by this President have an impact on our soldiers,” said Michaud, who is the top Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

His campaign said the gubernatorial race is “absolutely not” a factor in Michaud’s decision.

“Mike always makes his decisions based on what he thinks is best for the people of Maine and this country, not based on whether it will help him or hurt him win his next political campaign,” said spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt.

Brian Duff, an associate professor and political observer at the University of New England, said the long-term political impacts of this issue are especially unpredictable because no one knows how the Assad regime would respond. If the situation implodes, then those who voted for strikes could definitely be subjected to voter backlash.

Duff said he “didn’t see a huge danger” for Michaud, though.

“I think he will get leeway if he votes ‘yes’ and defends that vote,” Duff said. “Because as much as people don’t want to get involved [in another conflict] they are also horrified by what is going on over there.”

THE GHOST OF IRAQ

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, did vote to authorize force against Iraq in 2002 — along with former Sen. Olympia Snowe — based on the Bush administration’s evidence that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. At the time of the vote, she described the evidence as “compelling and indisputable.”

Those intelligence reports proved false, however, and the lack of WMDs in Iraq has since haunted the debate over a war that claimed thousands of American lives and cost trillions of dollars.

Collins said last week that Iraq is certainly on her mind as she considers strikes against Syria.

“It’s affecting all of us who were here” in 2002, Collins said in an interview. “And that is one of the reasons that we have pressed the intelligence community so hard to make sure they have the highest confidence that chemical weapons were used and that it was ordered by the Assad government.”

Collins said classified briefings she received as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee clearly link Assad to the Aug. 21 attacks. But she has not decided whether air strikes will achieve their goal or further inflame the situation, potentially dragging the U.S. into a larger conflict.

The White House is lobbying for her support.

On Friday, Collins got a call from Vice President Joe Biden as the White House tries to round up support for the targeted strikes. She and a group of Republican senators are also slated to join Biden for dinner on Sunday, days before a planned Senate vote on authorization.

MITCHELL BACK IN THE CAPITOL

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, was back inside the Capitol on Friday as part of what the Office of the Senate Historian said was the largest gathering of former Senate majority leaders in history.

Mitchell, who served as majority from 1989 to 1995, attended a dinner in the Capitol that was hosted by the current occupant of the Senate’s most powerful post, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. They were joined by former Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi.

“I am honored to be able to host this group representing two decades of bipartisan leadership in the Senate,” Reid said in a statement prior to the dinner. “We have worked together through historic events and many ups and downs, and I feel personally privileged to enjoy the benefit of their company, conversation, and wisdom.”

MAINER NAMED TO U.S. COMMISSION

President Obama named a Maine native to serve as one of six members of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, which is developing a national strategy on the issue.

According to biographical information supplied by Michaud’s office, Michael Petit serves as president and founder of the Every Child Matters Education Fund and previously held positions at the Child Welfare League of America. He was also commissioner of the Maine Department of Human Services from 1979 to 1987 and holds degrees from Bowdoin College and Boston College.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com