Why the Congressional Black Caucus could determine if the US strikes Syria

The Congressional Black Caucus, at times ignored by the Obama White House and rendered irrelevant in a GOP-controlled House, will play an outsized role as Congress decides whether to approve military strikes in Syria.

A sizable bloc of Republicans in the House are expected to vote against the resolution calling for intervention in Syria, arguing the military strikes either don’t serve U.S. national security interests or could lead to a broader conflict. That’s left Obama administration officials aggressively courting the House’s 200 Democrats, who are expected to provide many of the votes if a resolution authorizing military action is approved.

And that means that the 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, all of whom are Democrats, are a critical swing group. Fifteen of the current CBC members voted against the Iraq War in 2002 (many of the remaining 28 members opposed the war too but were not yet serving in Congress) and are determined never to allow the U.S. to unwisely intervene in a country abroad again. Some, like Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), are generally opposed to any war. CBC members say their constituents are wary of this intervention, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week showed a majority of African-Americans do not support striking Syria.

And a bloc of black congressmen, like Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), have become increasingly wary of President Obama’s foreign policy vision, voting for example to defund the National Security Agency’s controversial “metadata” program that was exposed by Edward Snowden. More than a dozen CBC members, including chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio.), backed that legislation, which only narrowly failed.

At the same time, despite some tensions over whether Obama’s policies have done enough to help African-Americans, the CBC members take great pride in Obama’s presidency. They have nearly always backed his major initiatives. And the members are aware that allowing the Syria vote to lose could deal a substantial blow to the president’s credibility.

For now, many of them are non-committal, saying they want to wait until Congress reconvenes next week, talk to their colleagues and perhaps amend the resolution to their liking. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who the caucus strongly supported when she was being considered for secretary of state, is meeting with the entire CBC on Monday to urge them to vote for the resolution.

“I think Nancy Pelosi is absolutely correct when she said this red line was drawn by humanity, that a decision was made, sometime ago, a long time before anybody knew who Barack Obama was, to draw a red line when it comes to chemical warfare,” James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the No. 3 leader of House Democrats and a key figure in the CBC said in an interview with theGrio. “A red line has been drawn by the world when it comes to chemical warfare …What our response to that is, we’ve got  to talk to Susan Rice about, because I believe that there needs to be response, but it shouldn’t be an American response, it should be an international response.”

He added, “I”m reserving judgment … because I want to be sure that there is not language here [in the resolution] that can lead to an open-ended approach.”

So far, only a handful of members have sharply opposed the Syria intervention. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) cast Obama’s red line comments as “embarrassing” in an interview on MSNBC over the weekend and said he would oppose the war resolution, but that was not surprising; Rangel may be opposed to the Syria military strikes on principle, but he’s also long been one of the strongest Obama critics in the CBC. The president called for Rangel to resign three years ago as the congressmen was being investigated for violating congressional ethics rules.

Lee was the main organizer of a letter that more than 60 Democratic members sent to Obama last week, urging him not to strike Syria without congressional approval. But the California Democrat, who was the only member of Congress to vote against the authorization for war in Afghanistan in 2001, is still  expected to oppose the resolution even though Obama complied with her initial request.

A few members of the caucus, such as Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, are already vocally supporting the president’s policy.

“If the facts warrant it, if the facts show that it was a gas attack authorized by the Assad regime, and if it’s true that there were 1,500 people killed, I just don’t think the world can stand by and say that’s OK, that’s not our business, we don’t have to worry about it,” Ellison told the Minn Post over the weekend.

But the next week should provide a vivid illustration of both the black members’ views on Syria and their relationship with President Obama. During much of Obama’s first term, black caucus members tried to avoid criticizing the president publicly, even as they disagreed with him, particularly on economic issues. Caucus members argued privately and occasionally publicly that Obama needed to purpose specific politics to reduce black unemployment, which hovered above 13 percent for much of Obama’s first term. Obama and his advisers argued that his broad-based policies actually disproportionately benefited blacks and that race-specific approaches were not politically viable anyway.

At one point, Obama did not have a meeting with the caucus members for more than two years, angering the group.

Since Obama won reelection, the CBC members have been more vocal, criticizing Obama earlier this year, for example, for not appointing enough blacks to his Cabinet.

At the same time, many, like Clyburn, want to give Obama’s position on Syria a fair hearing, even if they are wary of America entering another Arab nation.

“Most of my people are against it,” said the congressman, referring to his district, which is in the southeastern part of South Carolina.

But he suggested he might buck his constituents on this issue, adding, “all of my constituents won’t be in the meetings I will be in on Monday.”

“Certainly, I’m open,  but I”m not there yet,” he concluded.