Syria War News: The Simple Guide to the Senate Vote On Syria

Who and What

The Senate is set to vote on S.J.RES.21, which would authorize the use of military force in Syria against Assad’s military. President Obama has been pulling out all the stops to acquire all the votes needed for the bill to pass. After Assad crossed Obama’s so-called "red line" on the use of chemical weapons, the White House has been pushing for military action.

In order for Obama to get all the votes to do this, he needs the help of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who can use his whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to persuade or force the necessary number of votes. Ideally Obama would also have the assistance of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) to get Republican hawks on his side and avoid a filibuster. So far Senators McConnell and Cornyn have been undecided, although several prominent Republicans have said they would support military action including Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

When

Presumably the Senate will attempt to vote as soon as possible this week, although that may change as an offhand comment by Secretary of State Kerry Monday that Assad could avoid U.S. strikes if he handed over his arsenal for destruction by the international community was immediately seized upon by the UN, Russia, and other states as a diplomatic solution. 

Because the U.S. hasn't completely ruled out the possibility of seeking another vote from the United Nations Security Council, a chemical arms deal could be a way out of military action that is likely to be approved in the UNSC. This possible diplomatic solution could delay or change the Senate and House votes given the reluctance among legislators to go to war. If Assad complied with such a proposal, it would be a much better way to prevent further use of such terrible weapons against civilians and would allow Obama to save face and maintain U.S. credibility without the potential loss of American lives.

Why

Although the Senate could well authorize action in Syria, there are several reasons why it will be difficult to get the votes. First is that even though the Senate rushed the legislation through its Foreign Relations Committee, it didn’t use the War Powers Act to try to require only a simple majority for its approval. Instead the resolution will be treated like any other piece of legislation which means that it will take 60 votes to bring it to the floor and 51 to pass. This means that more votes are needed and the bill could be subject to a filibuster.

Another reason why it will be difficult to get enough votes is that only 16% of Americans strongly favor taking military action against Syria, so voting "yes" is a dangerous position for politicians. In fact, The New York Timesvote counter shows that politicians who are up for reelection are more likely to vote against war. In addition, the numbers shown below reflect the hesitation in Congress and the difficulty of predicting a vote.

Even the in the House, any measure authorizing military intervention will have trouble passing. For instance, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) may have given his approval to a strike, but he has not gone out of his way to persuade Tea Party Republicans or the many former Iraq hawks who have turned into doves.

How

There are a variety of ways that presidents, leaders, and whips can cobble together votes. One is to change the wording of the desired legislation to make it sound more agreeable. The resolution authorizing force that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed was created with that in mind, as it specifically bars putting boots on the ground and puts a limit of 60 days on operations, unlike the original administration’s proposal.

Another way is to give senators special treatment, such as inviting them to the White House for some one-on-one discussion with the president as means of appealing to their egos. Also, congressional leaders have been giving their subordinates personal calls, briefings, and letters. In addition, Obama has recruited the support of a wide range of officials, think tanks, and even neoconservatives like Donald Rumsfeld from the Bush era in an attempt to change public opinion.  

Finally, there is the age-old practice of promising or threatening not to provide favors such as funding during the 2014 midterms, or having the vice president personally endorse a candidate.