Nothing fades faster in Washington than an unpopular idea.
The debate over military intervention in Syria departed DC Thursday for the quiet halls of the United Nations and picturesque Geneva, where Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power are taking the lead on negotiating the transfer of Syrian chemical weapons to the international community. And no sooner were the diplomats wheels up out of Andrews than Washington breathed a collective sigh of relief, shelving the politically unpopular talk of war and returning to the familiar, reassuring routine of partisan bickering and legislative fights.
Even the White House seemed happy to move on, as President Barack Obama marked a pivot from his administration’s singular focus on Syria of the past three weeks.
“Even as we have been spending a lot of time on the Syria issue and making sure that international attention is focused on the horrible tragedy that occurred there, it is still important to recognize that we’ve got a lot more stuff to do here in this government,” Obama said Thursday morning before a meeting of his Cabinet, ticking off a list from education to the budget that he hopes to turn to.
Among them, politics: Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to travel to Iowa Sunday to attend Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry, a major political event in the state home to the first contest of the 2016 presidential cycle.
On Capitol Hill, attention had already started to shift after Obama’s speech Tuesday night.
First on the list of other pressing issues was passing a continuing resolution to fund the government past September 30, as Congressional leaders faced more questions about the tea party than Syria in their weekly press conferences.
The House was expected to vote Thursday on the funding bill, but Speaker of the House John Boehner had to postpone the measure to shore up support for the resolution after conservative members insisted on opposing it because it doesn’t directly cut funding to Obamacare. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid huddled with Boehner, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi Thursday morning to discuss ways to avert a government shutdown with so little time remaining. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor informed members that the chamber would likely cancel a planned recess the week of Sept. 23 and that members may have to work into the following weekend, though a final decision won’t come until next week. The Senate, meanwhile, has turned to debating a modest bipartisan attempt to boost energy efficiency.
But Congress’ respite may not last as long as some on Capitol Hill might hope. Debate over Syria hasn’t been completely eliminated. Instead it’s returned to where it was before the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21. Members of both parties are drawing battle lines over the extent to which the United States should support and arm the Syrian opposition, a familiar fight that has been waged for more than 18 months. “[Authorization for the Use of Military Force] for limited air strikes is likely dead at this point,” said a House GOP aide. “Going forward, the question of training and equipping opposition forces with lethal aid will remain a primary issue for the committees involved.”
The White House won’t get much of a Syria break either. While Obama put his request for military authorization on hold Tuesday, the administration has continued Congressional briefings on Syria. The U.S. hopes to strengthen its diplomatic position by keeping a credible military threat against Syrian President Bashar Assad in play. But the mixed message to lawmakers has removed the sense of urgency responsible for what little support there was for war on the Hill. Whatever momentum Obama had built has been reversed and the administration will face an even tougher sell in Congress if negotiations fail or Assad uses chemical weapons again.
That was evident after a House Homeland Security committee briefing Thursday, when members of the President’s own party raised questions about a strike and even opposed arming the Syrian rebels. “I have taken a position strongly opposed to arming the Syrian rebels,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a military veteran. “As we have just honored those who have been killed by al Qaeda on 9/11 yesterday to even consider arming those who have struck and will attempt to strike in the future against us, [arming the rebels] is unconscionable.”
“We want to make sure we know who these folks are,” said Rep. Eric Swallwell (D-Calif.). “There are at least 10 formidable groups out there. Some of them are al-Qaeda. Some of them are anti-West. You better take the time to make sure you know who is who on that battlefield.” Many Republicans, especially those who opposed Syria strikes, share that opinion. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney repeatedly declined to engage in a discussion about American aid to the Syria opposition, which is classified and can be accomplished without Congress. “Both the political and military resistance are and will be receiving assistance,” Carney said.
For now, though, lawmakers and the White House are relishing the break from the issue that the new–and distant–diplomatic track is giving them.