U.S. Hill's Syria Debate Set To Dominate Agenda In Coming Weeks

Published Sep 5, 2013. By John Shaw.

--Budget Expert Says Syria Doesn't Change 'Fundamentals' of Fiscal Debate,


Alters Timing


WASHINGTON (MNI) - In the past few days, Congress's fall agenda has grown more crowded and complicated with the addition of a resolution authorizing U.S. military force in Syria.


But it remains unclear how the addition of a major foreign policy issue will affect the coming debate on the 2014 budget and the debt ceiling.


The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed Wednesday a use of force resolution pertaining to Syria on a 10-to-7 vote, with one senator voting present. Seven Democrats and three Republicans voted for the resolution. Five Republicans and two Democrats voted against it. The present vote came from Democratic senator Ed Markey.


The Senate will convene Friday for a brief session to formally place the Syrian resolution on the Senate calendar for next week.


The Friday session will allow Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to move immediately to the Syrian resolution on Monday. It remains unclear if the opponents of the resolution will use parliamentary motions to delay a final Senate vote.


It does seem certain the Senate will spend most, if not all, of next week debating U.S. policy in Syria.


Administration officials and congressional leader have said the U.S. has strong evidence that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on Aug. 21 in an attack which killed more than 1,400 civilians.


House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi all said Tuesday after meeting with President Barack Obama that they will support a use of force resolution.


But there is no agreement by House leaders on the language of the resolution the House will consider. Boehner will likely consult with the House Republican caucus early next week to discuss how to proceed on a Syrian resolution.


Boehner's two broad options are to either use the language the Senate considers or craft a different resolution.


The Senate resolution was drafted by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, and Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the panel.


Menendez said the resolution is a "tightly" drawn authorization for the president to use force against Syrian military targets to respond to, and deter, the use of weapons of mass destruction in Syria and to damage Syria's ability to carry out such attacks in the future.


The Senate resolution would limit strikes against Syrian forces to 60 days with the possibility of a 30-day extension after consulting with Congress. It would prohibit the use of American ground troops. At the insistence of Republican Senator John McCain, it says U.S. policy is to "change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria."


Two Democratic congressmen, Chris Van Hollen and Gerald Connolly, are drafting an alternative resolution that would authorize only a single round of missile strikers unless there is another chemical weapons attack.


There is no indication that such a narrow resolution would be acceptable to Boehner.


As the debate on Syria moves to the top of the congressional agenda, the debate on several pressing fiscal policy matters will start the fall in the background.


"I don't think Syria affects the fundamentals of the fiscal debate, but it's likely to affect its timing," says Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition.


"With so little time until the start of the new fiscal year, I expect Congress to pass a series of very short-term CRs (stop-gap spending bills), lasting a week or so, to buy time for the parties to gear up for the bigger fiscal debate," he said.


"Syria would also seem to reduce the possibility of a government shutdown. It's not clear how lawmakers could both authorize a military strike and also shut the government down," Bixby said.


The 2014 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 and so far Congress has not passed any of the 12 spending bills for the year. Additionally, the administration has said the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling needs to be increased by the middle of October.


Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman who is now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the Syria debate will delay the fiscal debate for at least a week and possibly for much of September.


"The Syria debate is going to greatly complicate the lives of the leadership and the rank-and-file members in Congress. It's going to divert attention, at least initially, from the budget and debt ceiling battles," he said.


"It's also not likely to improve the mood of any on Capitol Hill. Despite some of the rhetoric you hear, I don't think many in Congress are very eager to vote on Syria," he added.