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War Votes Bring Back Complex Risks For Members Of Congress

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (center left) is a Tea Party favorite, whom observers count as a possible 2016 presidential candidate. He voted against President Obama's plan to fight the Islamic State.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (center left) is a Tea Party favorite, whom observers count as a possible 2016 presidential candidate. He voted against President Obama's plan to fight the Islamic State.

This week's war vote in the U.S. Senate presented each senator with a personal puzzle of competing political considerations.

In deciding whether to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight against the group called the Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL), senators had to judge the issue on its merits, of course and as always.

And, of course and as always, they had to reflect on how their votes might affect them politically.

The issues at play in this crisis are hugely complicated and daunting, especially for those who remember the rush to war in 2001 and 2002 and the fateful consequences of that haste.

But there are conflicts as well in the strictly political calculus, especially for those contemplating not just re-election to the Senate but presidential bids as well.

Half a dozen of the 22 "no" votes in the Senate this week were cast by those in both parties who have been mentioned as prospective candidates for president in 2016.

You could say it came down to a ranking of each senator's ambitions in terms of time frame: the politics of the moment competing with those of the near future and the down-the-road.

In the moment, senators were responding to national outrage over ISIS videos of the beheading of two American journalists (a third video later showed the similar murder of a British aid worker). Polling by the Pew Research Center found that more than 90 percent of Americans were aware of these videos, making them the single most widely noted news event of the past five years.

Polls also showed two-thirds of the country thought the U.S. ought to do something about it.

Spurred by these provocations, the Obama administration abandoned its famous reluctance to re-engage in the region's sectarian and tribal struggles. The White House ordered airstrikes against ISIS and wants to spend billions to train and equip someone else's ground forces to take ISIS on.

To be sure, that shift in policy by the commander in chief constitutes a form of political pressure on Congress in itself. The vote was preceded by two days of hearings in which the Pentagon made the case for airstrikes, and perhaps even stronger measures if ISIS "becomes a greater threat to the U.S."

All the while, the sense that our blood is up becomes a drumbeat beneath all the warlike news and comment in the media.

Still, senators voting this week also knew that some of this high dudgeon may dissipate in the days before the November election. What will remain will be the unanswerable questions many voters are already asking:

  • How do we know this new strategy will work?
  • Who will supply the ground troops everyone agrees are needed?
  • How do we know the people we arm and train this time won't turn against us, as others have elsewhere?
  • How do we know our involvement won't strengthen ISIS's appeal to Islamic militants and make attacks on our homeland more likely?
  • Balancing all these factors, 78 senators still voted to back the president's new engagement of ISIS, at least in the short run. That included a clear majority in both parties, even among those seeking re-election in November.

    The exceptions were worth noting. One was Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska, who must be counted among the most endangered of the fragile Class of 2008 facing voters this November.

    Begich objected to voting on the war as part of the overall funding to keep the government open. But he also must bear in mind the distance that separates Alaskans and their voting concerns from the morass in Mesopotamia.

    Another dissenter on the Senate floor was veteran Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, one of his party's senior statesmen. Although he survived a primary challenge from his right, Roberts now finds himself battling a strong independent bid in November — the only Republican incumbent in a race too close to call.

    Roberts, too, could have seen a backlash from constituents who take a dim view of foreign military commitments in general.

    It should be said that no matter how principled they are in their votes, neither Begich nor Roberts needed to worry about any adverse public reaction should the war vote fail and ISIS be seen as victorious. They could vote "no" knowing the legislation would pass anyway, in one sense letting them off the hook for the decision.

    The same applies to the other 20 senators who voted no (eight Democrats, 11 Republicans and one independent), and to the 156 "no" voters in the House — who included roughly 40 percent of the Democratic caucus and 30 percent of the GOP.

    There are times when it is safest to vote for whatever is going to happen anyway; but there are also times when it is safest to vote against it.

    The 22 "no" votes in the Senate came mostly from the chamber's most noted conservatives (such as John Barrasso of Wyoming, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma) and most noted liberals (including Pat Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts).

    But most observers were struck by the apparent connection to presidential aspirations. There might be nothing surprising about the "no" vote of Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, a sometime libertarian. But it was notable that Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, another Tea Party favorite, also voted no. (A third GOP freshman who had Tea Party backing, Marco Rubio of Florida, voted for the bill and spoke in support of it on the floor.)

    The Democratic "no" voters included Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a populist figure who has been mentioned as an alternative to the party's leftish, coastal orientation. Others, such as Warren or Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, fit more into the liberal mainstream of the party in the chamber.

    It cannot have been lost on any of these mentionees that a onetime front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Hillary Clinton, found herself weighed down in that race by her 2002 vote to support a war in Iraq.

    The irony here is that the rival who used that vote against her, to his own advantage in 2007 and 2008, was Barack Obama, who in the sixth year of his presidency was himself asking the Senate to grasp the nettle of a foreign war.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.