House Democrats could be tough sell on Syria strike

McClatchy Washington BureauSeptember 5, 2013 

— As the House of Representatives prepares to vote this month on whether to launch military action in Syria, President Barack Obama will have to persuade not only Republicans but also members of his own party to go along.

That includes Rep. Ami Bera, a freshman Democrat from California who’s on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. While both Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California have lined up behind Obama, Bera and other rank-and-file members of Congress in both parties have expressed deep skepticism.

“I really want the administration to lay out the case why it’s in the U.S. national security interests,” Bera said in an interview. “I don’t think they’ve adequately explained what the end game is.”

Bera, a Sacramento doctor only nine months into his first term, is feeling the tug from two directions: his party’s leadership in Washington and his constituents in California. If he votes no, it could cost him good will with the White House and House leaders — a risky move for a low-ranking freshman. If he votes yes, it could cost him support at home — a risky move for a vulnerable incumbent who won by little more than 3 percentage points.

“Welcome to Washington,” said Mark Jacobson, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a Washington foreign policy organization. “This is a vote where everyone needs to say yea or nay.”

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report placed Bera’s California 7th district in the “lean Democratic” column in 2014. The Democrats’ House campaign fundraising arm has identified Bera and three other California freshmen among the 26 most vulnerable incumbents.

Constituent phone calls and emails streaming into lawmakers’ offices across Capitol Hill have mostly expressed opposition, and Bera’s office is no exception.

“People have real reservations,” he said.

In Wednesday’s hearing in the Foreign Affairs Committee, Bera condemned the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people. But he told three senior officials who testified — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — that he’d have a hard time explaining military intervention to the people in his district when Syria is “far from their problems.”

“People don’t want us to strike Syria,” Bera told them. “They’re fatigued.”

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington policy group, said while it’s easy for foreign-policy experts in Washington to reach a consensus on Syria, it’s harder for members of Congress to sell it to constituents still reeling from two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worst recession since the Great Depression.

“It’s an inside-the-Beltway argument, and most Americans are having a hard time relating to it,” he said. “Not endorsing strikes me as the least risky political course.”

Bera is far from alone in his reservations. Reps. John Garamendi, a Democrat, and Tom McClintock, a Republican, who both represent neighboring California districts but otherwise share little in common, both oppose a Syria strike. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, another California Republican, leans no, according to a spokesman. Bera’s more senior colleague from Sacramento, Rep. Doris Matsui, a Democrat, hasn’t indicated how she might vote.

Pelosi and Sen. Barbara Boxer were two of the California Democrats who voted against authorizing then-President George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq more than a decade ago. This time, both are backing Obama.

Boxer voted Wednesday for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee resolution to authorize military action in Syria. Pelosi emerged Tuesday from a meeting at the White House united with the president and her Republican counterpart, House Speaker John Boehner.

Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., said the calculation is different for a new lawmaker in Bera’s position than it is for Boxer and Pelosi, now senior leaders.

“If I’m a freshman, the folks in my district outrank my party leaders,” Pitney said. “The folks in the district are still going to be there after the leaders are gone.”

An Aug. 29-Sept. 1 poll by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 48 percent of Americans oppose military intervention in Syria, while only 29 percent support it.

Jacobson, who supports a Syria strike, said it’s clear that public opinion is running against it. But, he added, public support for military interventions rarely affects elections, even when things go right. Former President George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings soared after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But he lost reelection in 1992.

Whether they’re in their first year in office or have been in Congress for decades, Jacobson said a vote on authorizing the use of military force is a matter of conscience.

“You’re talking about something that transcends electoral politics,” Jacobson said. “There’s no guarantee a vote either way plays better if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”

Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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