WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's decision to seek congressional approval of military strikes against Syria threatens to make an already contentious fall agenda on Capitol Hill even more unstable, heightening the chance of political gridlock.
Congressional leaders will return Monday after a five-week break. They had planned to use September to position their caucuses for a showdown over government funding levels and a bid to increase the federal debt limit, the third clash over the debt since 2011. The two sides are also jockeying over a proposed immigration overhaul and a continuing struggle over the farm bill, which was a victim of a conservative revolt over food stamps.
Instead, the first order of business is whether to support missile strikes in response to Syrian President Bashar Assad's alleged chemical attack on civilians. Lawmakers, many of whom were demanding a congressional voice on the decision, now appear stunned that it is before them amid many other divisive issues.
"We're having trouble walking and chewing gum already. This doesn't make it any easier," 10-term Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., said last week as he left a classified briefing on Syria.
Obama on TV, a lot
The convergence of these issues sets up a complicated negotiating environment, with the Syria question burning up a significant amount of political capital for both Democratic and Republican leaders.
Obama, home from his trip to the Group of 20 summit in Russia, has begun a campaign to win support for action against Syria. The president will sit down with PBS, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News Channel for interviews airing Monday, White House officials said, and will make his case in a speech to the nation on Tuesday.
Obama used his weekly radio address Saturday to try to rally a skeptical public in an effort to shift momentum his way, saying: "We cannot turn a blind eye to images like the ones we've seen out of Syria. Failing to respond to this outrageous attack would increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again; that they would fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us, and it would send a horrible signal to other nations that there would be no consequences for their use of these weapons."
U.S. intelligence officials have authenticated at least 13 videos of the aftermath of the alleged Syrian gas attack showing men and children convulsing and struggling to breathe, a government official said Saturday.
The first hurdle to clear on Syria comes in the Senate, and although winning approval for a strike is considered easier there than in the House, it is not certain. On Saturday, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who is locked in a tough 2014 re-election bid, became the fifth Senate Democrat to publicly oppose the use-of-force resolution while the majority of senators remain undecided.
White House officials estimated that by Saturday afternoon, the administration had contacted 85 senators and more than 165 House members to seek support.
White House officials said those contacts have included meetings with Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough; phone calls that Obama made Friday night aboard Air Force One on his way home; and classified briefings with senior national security officials.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will hold an early test vote Wednesday, when he will need 60 votes in support of the resolution to formally open debate, with a more critical 60-vote hurdle coming later in the week. Senate GOP leaders have remained largely silent, and an increasingly powerful bloc of libertarian Republicans are leading opposition to the Syrian strikes; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is marshaling support among the more traditional hawkish Republicans.
With some Senate liberals opposed, fearing another quagmire like the Iraq war, Obama needs his 2008 presidential rival to bring along a sizable number of Republicans to win approval in the Senate.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who support the strikes, have left rounding up votes to the administration. A large majority of House Republicans do not favor the president's push amid an outpouring of opposition from constituents who opposed the resolution by 10-to-1 margins in phone calls and e-mails, according to lawmakers and GOP aides.
Dwarfing the other issues, the use-of-force resolution prompted more than 100 lawmakers to return early to the Capitol last week from the end-of-summer break to examine classified information about the alleged sarin attacks that killed more than 1,400 Syrians last month.
Ready for other issues
But they are ready to take on the other issues.
"We're not even talking about those issues now, but you better believe, when we get back, we will," said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.
Boehner and Cantor plan to wait for the Senate to make a decision about Syria before taking up the matter in the House. Meantime, the GOP leaders plan to bring to the House floor this week a stopgap funding measure that would leave in place austerity measures mandated by the continuing inability of Obama and Congress to reach a deal on broad tax-and-entitlement reform.
They have yet to decide whether to provoke a showdown over Obama's health-care law by attaching riders to defund the Affordable Care Act. Doing so would be opposed by the Democratic-controlled Senate and increase chances of a partial government shutdown when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
The best case for winning House approval of the Syrian resolution appears to rest with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. She sent a daily "Dear colleague" letter to fellow Democrats for the past week calling for support of Obama. She may have to rally 80 percent of her 200 Democrats, to go along with 50 to 60 Republicans, a tall order.
Regardless of the outcome on Syria, Boehner will once again be siding with a minority within his GOP caucus, the latest in a string of votes this year where a majority of Republicans oppose his position.
Some Democrats privately argue that that gives them the upper hand in the debt-ceiling battle, but Republicans worry that it might lead Boehner to move to the right to keep support in his caucus.