September 8, 2013

Syria looms over already busy agenda in Congress

Lawmakers return Monday, the president will address the nation Tuesday, and an initial Senate vote is likely Wednesday – Sept. 11.

By ANDREW TAYLOR and DONNA CASSATA The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Congress returns to work facing a momentous vote on whether the United States should attack Syria, a question that overshadows a crowded and contentious agenda of budget fights, health care, farm policy and possible limits on the government's surveillance of millions of Americans.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrive for their meeting at the Quai d' Orsay in Paris on Saturday. Kerry traveled to Europe to court international support for a possible strike on the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons while making calls back home to lobby Congress, where the action faces an uphill battle.

The Associated Press

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Back Monday after a five-week break, many lawmakers stand as a major obstacle to President Obama's promised strikes against Syria amid fears of U.S. involvement in an extended Mideast war and public fatigue after more than a decade of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama insists the world must act. He blames Syrian President Bashar Assad for gassing his own people, killing 1,429 civilians, including 426 children. The Syrian government has denied responsibility for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, and blames rebels.

On Wednesday, the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the first showdown Senate vote is likely over a resolution authorizing the "limited and specified use" of U.S. armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days and barring American ground troops from combat. A final vote in the chamber is expected at week's end.

"I think we're going to get 60 votes. It's a work in progress," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday.

Support for the president is stronger in the Senate than in the Republican-controlled House. There, Obama faces a difficult path to victory despite the backing of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California for military strikes.

The Syria vote poses a dilemma for Obama's Democratic allies in Congress. Many strongly opposed the war in Iraq but are reluctant to undercut a president from their own party. The crucial player is Pelosi, a proven vote-getter.

Senior administration officials will speak to lawmakers in advance of the president's speech to the nation Tuesday night.

A House vote is likely the week of Sept. 16.

Even before Syria, Congress faced a busy and difficult fall packed with battles.

Obama and his allies in the Democratic-run Senate face fights from House Republicans over bills to fund government agencies and raise the ceiling on federal borrowing to avert a market-rattling government default. Then there are efforts by conservatives to cut off money for Obama's health care law, with open enrollment for health insurance exchanges beginning Oct. 1.

After Syria, Congress' most immediate task is passing a temporary spending bill to prevent much of the government from shutting down on the Oct. 1 start of the new budget year.

The stopgap measure would buy time to work out funding government programs over the next 12 months, but even its passage is in doubt.

Republicans are considering whether to use the measure as a last-ditch assault on Obama's expansion of federally subsidized medical care and new requirement that millions of people without health insurance either buy it or pay penalties to the Internal Revenue Service.

Republican leaders are eager to avoid an impasse and government shutdown. They had signaled earlier that they prefer a straightforward temporary spending bill that would keep agencies running at current budget levels, reflecting the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts in place for the past six months.

A grass-roots campaign over Congress' August recess has increased pressure on the leaders to attach the health care provision, but a Boehner spokesman said no decision has been made.

Congressional Democrats and the White House are eager to reverse the cuts, and many defense hawk Republicans would like to as well. But there have been no fruitful negotiations between the White House and House Republican leaders.

Negotiations between White House officials and a small group of Senate Republicans collapsed last month over familiar disagreements over tax increases and cuts to popular federal benefit programs.

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