Returning lawmakers face tough choices, uncertain paths on Syria
Posted October 14, 2019 7:30 p.m. EDT
CNN — President Donald Trump faced scathing bipartisan criticism for his decision last week to withdraw US forces from northern Syria. But it's unclear if Republicans are ready to directly rebuke the President by signing on to a resolution pushed by Democrats that would, in the words of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, "undo" the military moves of a President who is "simply derelict in his duty."
That sort of uncompromising language -- if Democrats tried to apply it to a formal resolution -- could push away Republicans, who are frustrated with events in Syria but reluctant to draw the ire of the commander in chief.
Instead, Republicans appear more willing to aim their criticism at Turkey by voting for tough new sanctions against the NATO ally, which has drifted from Western influence in recent years under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Such a move would allow Republicans, who know Trump is popular with their constituents, to express their unhappiness without confronting the President head-on.
Trump announced Monday that he would impose sanctions and tariffs against Turkey for its attack in Syria, but lawmakers will likely want to codify sanctions and not just rely on the executive branch to carry them out.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a firm Trump ally, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the President's decision to remove American troops. But after blasting it initially, Graham has worked carefully with the White House to build support for sanctions and is now crafting bipartisan legislation that he thinks will be widely popular on Capitol Hill.
In fact, most of Graham's comments in the last few days have been about advancing those sanctions -- and he has been virtually silent on a separate resolution to urge Trump to reverse course.
Despite that, after Graham and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke by phone Monday, the California Democrat heralded that Graham was on board with a tough resolution to "overturn the President's dangerous decision in Syria."
"Pleased to have a conversation with Senator @LindseyGrahamSC this morning. Our first order of business was to agree that we must have a bipartisan, bicameral joint resolution to overturn the President's dangerous decision in Syria immediately," Pelosi wrote on Twitter. "Next, we must put together the strongest bipartisan, bicameral sanctions package similar to the bipartisan bill the House is advancing."
In his statement, Graham highlighted Pelosi's support for sanctions but didn't mention anything about a resolution to overturn Trump's Syria policy shift.
"Just spoke with Speaker Pelosi regarding congressional action on Turkey's incursion of Syria. Speaker supports bipartisan sanctions against Turkey's outrages in Syria," Graham tweeted. "I will be working across party lines in a bicameral fashion to draft sanctions and move quickly, appreciating President Trump's willingness to work with the Congress."
An aide to the South Carolina Republican would not say if Graham accepted Pelosi's characterization of what they had agreed to but did tell CNN he would be OK with a measure encouraging the President to reconsider his decision to withdraw troops from Syria. The aide noted that Graham has not seen any final language so could not say definitively if he would support a resolution.
Drafting language that would be tough enough for Democrats to support but that isn't so harsh as to scare away Republicans is a difficult needle to thread.
In a statement Monday, Schumer and other senior Democratic senators said sanctions legislation will not suffice and that Congress must vote on legislation "demanding" Trump reverse course in Syria.
"Strong sanctions, while good and justified, will not be sufficient in undoing that damage nor will it stop the consequences stemming from the ISIS jailbreak. The first step when Congress returns to session this week is for Republicans to join with us in passing a resolution making clear that both parties are demanding the President's decision be reversed," said the statement, which was also from Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
Top aides in each party on Monday were reluctant to predict how the debate will unfold ahead of lawmakers returning from their two-week recess. But the aides said they believe there will be a legislative response of some kind.
The entire debate may be complicated by House Democrats' impeachment inquiry into Trump, because it has damaged trust between the parties and chambers.
The uncertainty surrounding how to proceed was evident in a statement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a reliable steward of the President's agenda, who said he was "gravely concerned" about events in Syria that could lead to a "resurgence of ISIS." But he stopped short of suggesting a path forward.
"I look forward to discussing what the United States can do to avoid a strategic calamity with my Senate colleagues and with senior administration officials when the Senate returns to Washington this week," he said.