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Analysis: Syria Debate To Be Congressional Curve Ball

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Congress was scheduled to be in session just nine days in September.
Victoria Pickering: www.flickr.com/photos/16688857@N03/4810433202
Congress was scheduled to be in session just nine days in September.

It was supposed to be a quiet week on Capitol Hill, as Congress wraps up its summer break. Instead, there has been a flurry of activity following President Obama's announcement Saturday that he'll seek Congressional authorization for military action in Syria. Lawmakers are receiving White House briefings and are working to schedule hearings and votes on the matter.

David Hawkings, who writes the Hawkings Here column for Roll Call, spoke with WAMU Morning Edition host Matt McCleskey to discuss what this means on the Capitol.

Of course the big question in all of this is whether the White House has the votes to pass a measure authorizing a military strike.  But your paper is reporting leaders may not follow the regular route of whip counts on this. Why not?

"Traditionally, matters of voting to go to war or the use of military force are what's known in Congressional parlance as 'conscience votes,' which means members are free to vote their conscience without regard to what whips tell them the party leadership wants. That doesn't mean that the whips won't be taking count, because they can't help themselves and they'll be curious. And they would probably want to know if there's going to be a huge problem for this thing, but neither side will be pressing its rank and file to vote one way or another."

"So this will be a test for Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the most powerful whip from our area. He is very much for this, just as he was ten years ago. Same thing happened ten years ago, he was the minority whip back then too. He was for the Iraq War, and took counts and took note of how members were voting, but didn't press them to vote one way or another."

The White House has not been clear on whether the President will order military action if Congress does not authorize it. Speaking on CBS, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said we shouldn't send service members into conflict without political support.

"If the president were to do something without Congressional support, it's just not fair to the men and women we ask to fight our battles -- to send them in not knowing whether the American public or Congress backs them up."

Kaine has been a strong supporter of the president, but it sounds like he's suggesting he would not support action without Congressional approval.

"That is what he is sounding like, which is a big warning sign for the president. Of course, Senator Kaine was Obama's hand-picked Chairman of the Democratic National Committee -- he was considered for other top jobs. They are pretty close. It's also an indication that it's going to be Democratic votes that are going to make the difference on whether the president gets what he wants on this. It will almost certainly be a minority of Republicans in the House, maybe close to half; it certainly seems unlikely that more than half of Republicans will vote for this. That will mean that the Democrats especially in the House and also in the Senate will have to vote for this."

The federal fiscal year ends at the end of the month.  What does all of this mean for negotiations to fund the government beyond that?

"It certainly means that people aren't talking about it again this week and not next week. The fiscal year ends on Sept. 30 as we all know. Congress is only supposed to be back for nine days between when they come back next Monday and they're supposed to take a recess before the start of the new fiscal year. I don't see any pressing reason why that recess couldn't be canceled. To work on something on the budget that's a little more complicated than just a straight-forward extension of current spending levels, but I do think that the odds would have to favor at least a short-term extension of the sequester spending levels that people have been complaining so bitterly about on both sides of the aisle, at least for a couple of weeks."

It was already looking like Congress had a full plate coming back from recess...

"There's still the immigration debate that has to be forced to a conclusion one way or another. There are energy issues. There's all kinds of dogs and cats. It's almost certain that Congress will be around until late this fall. They hardly ever go home early anymore, even in an off year. I think we'll see them here until Thanksgiving and beyond."

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