Congressional Debate Over Syria Will Be Test Of Divided GOP

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Chris Usher / CBS News / Getty Images

John McCain on Face the Nation on Sep. 1, 2013 in Washington, DC.

By seeking the approval of Congress to bomb Syria, President Barack Obama may speed forward another conflict: the battle between the warring isolationist and interventionist factions of the Republican Party, as evidenced by statements from both sides in recent days.

Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham have made clear that their vote on the measure is contingent on Obama committing to potentially broader military action than he has already proposed. “We have to have a plan. It has to be a strategy. It can’t just be, in my view, pinprick cruise missiles,” McCain said on Sunday, in an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation.

On the other side, the isolationist wing sees the coming debate as a great soapbox to establish their power in Congress, and shift American policy overseas. “I think all of the bad things you can imagine are all more likely if we get involved in the Syrian civil war,” said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, in an interview with NBC’s Meet The Press. “I think the line in the sand should be that America gets involved when American interests are threatened. I don’t see American interests involved on either side of this Syrian war.”

(MORE: White House Talks Strategy for Confronting Congress on Syria)

Democrats are just as divided as Republicans, with many doves expressing reservations about engaging in the conflict at all, or simply the open-ended nature of Obama’s request. But for the GOP, the foreign policy battle has become somewhat existential—a threat to party cohesion on domestic issues as well.

The heat was turned up on the long-simmering conflict earlier this year when Paul held his long filibuster on the Senate floor against the Obama administration’s drone policies. This summer, Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made it a rolling boil with a two-week back and forth over the NSA’s surveillance programs, a conflict that ended up becoming surprisingly personal.

In Democratic circles, after the initial frustration of Obama appearing to outsource part of his job to Congress, there is an element of glee at the choice facing the Republican Party. And while some in the White House are savoring the Republican predicament, White House Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer said the politics are irrelevant. “This issue is on a different level than the traditional fights we have with the GOP, so we don’t view it in the context of our other fights,” he told TIME. “This is a critical vote for the country and should be above political point scoring.”

(MORE: Three Reasons Congress May Not Approve War in Syria)

But that won’t stop the debate from roiling in the Republican Party, with some consultants warning Republicans not to take the bait. “The framing of ‘how does this trap the GOP’ coming from the WH, Democratic operatives and Obama’s fanboys tells Republicans in Congress this is as much about bailing out Obama’s failed policies as it is about stopping Assad,” said Republican political consultant Rick Wilson. “Axelrod et al swiftly framed this as a battle against the one enemy with whom Barack Obama will wage unrestricted warfare: the GOP.”

Others are seizing the moment. Dan Senor, the former chief spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and an advisor to the Romney/Ryan presidential campaign, said the GOP’s isolationist wing is a temporary fad, a byproduct of being out of power. “Even in a war as unpopular as Vietnam, McGovern’s “Come Home, America” backfired badly,” Senor said. “So has virtually every similar message since then. Tea Party critics of America’s current military operations should look at how well served congressional Republicans were in the 1990s by opposing intervention in the Balkans. Is there any evidence that this opposition helped conservatives?”

For Republicans, this month’s vote on Syria will be a test case for the new GOP. It remains unclear whether the divided Republican Party can agree to disagree without personal animosity taking over the debate, and potentially sewing further discord with the 2016 election fast approaching.

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