Perhaps they weren’t great moments in congressional history, the roll-call votes this week in which the House and, yesterday evening, the Senate agreed to fund the Syria operation. But they were really fascinating—as close as we’ve ever come in my adult lifetime, at least that I can remember, to having true “conscience votes.”
Actually, that’s a little too generous: While conscience played a part here, these people surely cast the votes that they thought would play best for them back in their home district or state. Even so, it was refreshing that, in an era totally dominated by party-line votes on questions of even the slightest controversy, there was no clear partisan explanation for the vote totals in the House and Senate.
Amazing, also, that campaign politics doesn’t seem to have figured into the votes too much. There were selected cases where the election loomed—Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, up for reelection in red Alaska, voted against funding what would inevitably be dubbed by his GOP opponent in attack ads “Barack Obama’s War.” But the proceedings certainly weren’t dominated by the upcoming election, as the Iraq War vote was in October 2002. For example, in contrast to Begich, other red-state Democrats up for reelection—North Carolina’s Kay Hagan and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor—voted yes.
What does all this show? For good or ill, these people do a pretty accurate job of representing how the country feels on an issue like this. So I think the votes show that the country basically supports the Obama plan, but less out of any sense of enthusiasm and more out of a kind resigned necessity and lack of any better ideas for the moment. That means the plan is going to have to work, or a lot of the people who were a “yes” this week are going to flip to being a “no” in the future. And the future is coming fast—after the election, Congress is going to start talking about writing a new authorization for the use of military force against ISIS, and while the odds today are that it would pass, bad news could unravel this support in a hurry.
A few notes on the unusual nature of the votes. The House roll call shows that Republicans gave the Syria funding higher support than Democrats did. Fully 69 percent of House Republicans voted yes (159-71), while 57 percent of Democrats backed it (114-85). In the Senate, where the measure passed 78-22, 82 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans backed it (I count here the two independents, Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, as Democrats, since they caucus with the Democrats; King voted for, Sanders against).
You would think most capital-L Liberals would have voted no. In the Senate, this was fairly true: Along with Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown voted no, although lots of pretty liberal senators—Barbara Boxer, Barbara Mikulski, Jeff Merkley—voted yes. But in the House, the 68 members of the Progressive Caucus split their vote exactly at 34-34.
On the right, most of the Tea Party and ultraconservative types voted against Obama in both Houses (Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Tom Coburn, Michele Bachmann). But some pretty conservative legislators voted yes (Marco Rubio and David Vitter in the Senate, Marcia Blackburn in the House). John McCain and Lindsey Graham were a yes, of course, even though Obama’s plan isn’t warlike enough for their tastes.
There’s not much rhyme or reason to it all, and that’s precisely what makes these votes so fascinating. I think the most telling votes to look at are those cast by incumbents in tight reelection races. As the Begich, Hagan, and Pryor examples show, there’s no clear line for incumbents to follow. The votes of two other incumbents in close races only deepen the mystery. New Hampshire Democrat Jean Shaheen, being challenged by Scott Brown, voted yes, while Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, who as of yesterday looks like he may well lose, voted no. Given their party affiliations and the demographic profiles of their states, I’d probably have expected the opposite out of both of them.
So, for the time being, America is united. Obama emphasized this in his brief remarks last night after the Senate voted, and he was able to put a little meat on the bones of his coalition by announcing that France has agreed to undertake airstrikes alongside us (in Iraq, but apparently not in Syria). The vote will start the process that will send $500 million to the moderate opposition, and we’ll see what they do with it.
The support was broad—adding up all the votes, 66 percent of Congress said yes. But it’s likely not deep. Obama is going to have to show Congress and the public successes. These aren’t going to be (for a while at least) and should not be limited to battlefield successes. More specific information about what coalition partners are contributing, especially the Arab states; positive signs of Sunni inclusion from the new Iraqi government; a few flesh-and-blood examples of some actual Syrian moderates, to demonstrate to a doubting Congress and public that they do exist—these are the kinds of public affirmations Obama should make, along with military strikes against ISIS. Congress might vote on the authorization of force measure as soon as December. The White House needs to spread some good—and real—news between now and then.