Not so strange bedfellows: Democrats and Republicans on Syria

Posted: Thu, 09/05/2013 - 4:54pm

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony about the potential use of military force in Syria [Photo:CNN].

Just an eyeblink ago, the most common complaint about Washington was that bipartisanship was dead. Most Democrats and most Republicans would not even agree to share a sandwich.

Well, cross-party cooperation is back, but it’s not the type the White House was hoping for.

As Congress gears up to debate authorizing the president to launch attacks against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, more than a few Republicans and Democrats have suddenly found common ground.

They plan to vote no.

The push from the right flank comes from Republicans like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who is leading the resistance in the upper chamber against the war powers authorization the president has requested.

“War should occur only when America is attacked, when it is threatened or when American interests are attacked or threatened,” he wrote on Time.com. “I don’t think the situation in Syria passes that test.”

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is leading resistance in the Senate against a plan to launch limited strikes on Syria [Photo: CNN].

Paul is joined in that effort by at least two other Republican senators who can see themselves running for president in 2016 -– Texas’ Ted Cruz and Florida’s Marco Rubio.

Republican Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska summed up this side of the debate when she spoke with me on the PBS NewsHour Wednesday. “We can have a narrow strike, but then, is that a shot across the bow?” she said. “What does that mean? Let's define that. Let's define what the mission is. There's a lot of unintended consequences out there.”

Among those unintended consequences, critics worry, is that Syria will strike back -– at the U.S. or at others in the region -– or respond by releasing even more chemical weapons.

There is, of course, a subset of Republican opposition who appear to be against intervention because it would mean supporting a Democratic president. But how does that explain the reluctant Democrats?

When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to approve the authorization on Wednesday, two Democrats voted no. (One voted present.) New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall told NPR the U.S. should be “rallying the world” to avoid war.

“I don’t think this is the time for us to get embroiled in the Syrian civil war and what is looking like a widening conflict between Sunnis and Shias in the region,” Udall told Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep. “I don’t think we have exhausted all our other options. A great country like ours should only go to war as a last resort.”

Liberal Democrats in the House are similarly exercised. Florida Rep. Alan Grayson went as far as to launch an online petition against intervention that, by midweek, had attracted more than 45,000 signatures.

“What the public sees is that we can't afford this anymore,” Grayson told The Atlantic’s Molly Ball.

 “The public also understands that every time we do something like this, it seems to end up a big mess, and America has problems of our own to deal with. There are 20 million people in this country looking for full-time work. How do you explain to them the virtues of military adventurism and humanitarian bombing 6,000 miles from home?”

Florida Rep. Alan Grayson launched an online petition against U.S. intervention in Syria [Photo: CNN].

So there you have it; bipartisan agreement across the aisle -- often for vastly different reasons -– but agreement just the same.

And there is this. It is not the first time Republicans and Democrats have shared a bed on the question of intervention in Syria. As NBC’s Mark Murray wisely points out here, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan agreed with President Obama in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line and demand U.S. action.

It served everyone’s purposes then, and it can again. It’s an open question whether this sudden burst of bipartisanship will drive the outcome.

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