Republicans too know that their votes will have consequences. The party is more deeply divided over foreign policy than at any time in a generation. Hawks like McCain want the United States to do more in Syria, including larger arms shipments to the rebels and use of U.S. air power to impose a no-fly zone. Tea party conservatives like Paul want the United States to stay out of the conflict, and polls show that their stance is more popular among Republican voters. Their votes over this month’s resolution could turn into a prelude for a battle over GOP foreign policy in the presidential primaries of 2016, pitting Paul against interventionists such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
The betting in Washington is that the Senate will pass a resolution authorizing military action, but only after amending Obama’s broadly worded proposal to impose time limits and prohibit any escalation without another debate. The House is harder to predict, even though Boehner, Pelosi and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have all declared themselves in favor. The outcome could be something like the 1999 vote on then-President Bill Clinton’s airstrikes in Kosovo: a 213-213 tie.
Regardless of the outcome, the country stands to gain from this debate. We’re overdue for a serious national conversation on the stakes and scale of U.S. military action in Syria. And the vote will serve as a reminder that the constitutional power to declare war still rests with Congress — despite the liberties recent presidents have taken.
For two years, Obama has declared that toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad is an important goal, but he’s avoided giving a detailed explanation of a strategy to achieve that end. Now circumstances have forced his hand – and that’s a good thing too.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times.