CAPITOL HILL— The Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has begun considering whether to authorize U.S. military force against Syria in response to last month's chemical attack that killed more than a thousand people. Experts said estimates of how the 435 members of the House are likely to vote show that President Barack Obama may face his toughest legislative battle yet - and one with the highest stakes for U.S. credibility.
Referring to the horrific images of the chemical weapons attack, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told committee members that the world is watching. “The world is not just watching to see what we decide here, but the world is really watching to see how we decide, frankly, whether or not we can still make or achieve a single voice speaking for the United States of America,” Kerry said.
The committee's ranking Democratic member, Congressman Eliot Engel, agreed. “The issue we confront today is much bigger than the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We are talking about the credibility of America as a global power,” he said.
But some members, including Republican Michael McCaul of Texas, voiced concern about authorizing military action because of the make-up of the Syrian rebels. “My concern is that any strike against this regime, as bad as it is, will empower these radical Islamists, these extremists, and we have seen this movie before,” he noted.
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said informal tallies of House members suggest that a resolution authorizing military force will be difficult, but not impossible, to pass.
"Presidents have a way of twisting arms and begging and pleading and promising right before a vote," he said. "And they often succeed narrowly. But this is not, not, a foregone conclusion."
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said he will vote for the resolution, and called on members to join him. But Boehner has faced repeated uprisings among his ranks.
"This is not party line government where the Republican leader of the House simply says vote this way and the rank and file do. In fact, these days, whatever Boehner says, you can count on 30 or 40 House Republicans doing the exact opposite," stated Rothenberg.
Rothenberg said we are likely to see unexpected coalitions."This is one of those odd cases where you are going to have a very confusing coalition, with isolationist, libertarian Republicans joining very liberal Democrats who traditionally oppose additional spending on military and defense - those two groups coming together to oppose giving the president authority to strike Syria," he explained. "And you are going to have a mixture of Republicans and Democrats, many moderates, but also a handful of strong liberals and strong conservatives supporting the president."
The world will likely be watching when the full House and Senate return to the Capitol next week to focus on Syria.