For Many in Congress, a First Test on Issues of War

Lawmakers' votes this week on whether or not to train and equip Syrian opposition forces in the fight against Islamic State were arguably the most consequential after nearly two years in which Congress is likely to set a new low for productivity.

But more than that, the initial decision Congress faced on President Obama's new mission to take out the militant threat represented the first significant opportunity for a big majority of both houses to decide an issue of war, a factor that was evident as the debate unfolded in the last week.


Sept. 19, 9:16 a.m.: An earlier version of this post may have given a wrong impression of Rep. Tim Walz's military service. He served in support of Operation Enduring Freedom during the war in Afghanistan but he was deployed in Italy.


Just a third of current members of both the House and Senate were serving in 2002, when Congress voted on a resolution that ultimately sent the U.S. into war with Iraq. Barely more than half of Congress has served longer than the president whose strategy they are now considering.

For some Democrats who first won election in 2006 — an election in which then-President George W. Bush's management of the Iraq war was a dominant issue — considering how, or whether, Congress should consider Obama's strategy presented a unique dilemma.

"I think there's a lot of us that came to Congress infused with a deep skepticism about military involvement in the Middle East," said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who first won a seat in the House in 2006. "I don't disagree that we are going to have to increase our military involvement in the region. And while that's certainly not something I thought I'd be voting on when I came to Congress as an anti-war Democrat in 2007, we have to deal with the cards that we've been dealt."

Murphy voted against legislation Thursday that included the authorization sought by the White House to begin overtly supporting vetted elements of the Syrian opposition fighting the Islamic State. That authority was attached to a must-pass spending bill that avoids another government shutdown until December, meaning senators did not have a chance to give clear indication of how they viewed the train-and-equip mission.

In the House, the amendment granting Obama's request for so-called Title X authority passed the House convincingly Wednesday — 273 to 156. Among Democrats the vote was closer, 114 to 85, reflecting the extent to which a largely anti-war party had to wrestle with a request from a commander-in-chief.

"These are some of the toughest votes any member of Congress ever takes," said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), who became the highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress when he took office in 2007. Being elected as part of that anti-Iraq wave "gives us a broader perspective" on the issues now, Walz added.

There were few clear patterns among how those members voted. Some Democrats who first won in that 2006 election, like Walz, ultimately voted to support the president's request. Rep. Carol Shea Porter (D-N.H.), whose upset win in 2006 represented the potency of anti-war position then, opposed Obama's request even as she expressed openness to the broader mission.

"I don't believe that we should step into the Shia-Sunni and other battles and into a civil war where allegiances shift and groups unite and divide constantly," she said.

Regardless of the final decision they reached on this specific vote, many said the Bush-era Iraq experience has guided the debate both in public and in closed sessions.

"It's why you feel a push to get a new authorization for the use of military force," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). "I think it's why you hear me asking questions about contracting. I'm not sure that anybody asked questions about contracting as George Bush put out a lot of information to get us into Iraq in the first place."

"Thank goodness they're raising questions," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), the only member of Congress who opposed the 2001 resolution that authorized the use of force against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, on which the White House bases its current authority. They are "recognizing that it's not about this president or this Congress. It's about Congress' responsibility and duty under the Constitution."

As support among House Democrats appeared to be waning, a key moment came when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) shared how she deliberated over the 2002 Iraq vote. She told Democrats that Obama had "earned a display of confidence" that she would not have given another president, as one Democrat recalled the discussion.

But neither party's leadership twisted arms to gain support, calling it a vote of conscience.

"People are trying to look at this outside the political realm," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who had served as the House Democrats' campaign committee chairman in 2008 and 2010. "This is one of those votes when you come to Congress that you want to make sure you've made the best decision that you can for the country."

In the Senate, ensuring passage from the Democratic majority required a promise from leaders to hold a debate over a new resolution to authorize the entirety of Obama's new campaign against Islamic State.

"That vote will be much more important," Murphy said.


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