The Democratic Congressman Who Thinks He Can Stop the Syria War

"You're going to see Democrats and Republicans lining up against this," Alan Grayson says.
A protester at Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

A "conscience vote": That's the congressional euphemism for an issue on which partisan loyalties are so scrambled that lawmakers must make up their own minds. Both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner have used the term to describe the authorization of military force in Syria, meaning they won't be "whipping," or pressuring members to vote a certain way.

But one Democratic congressman will be whipping -- against the resolution. Alan Grayson, the Florida liberal and civil-libertarian, has been rallying opposition to the use of force both among his colleagues and among the public. He believes the momentum is on his side and the authorization is doomed to fail in the House.

I interviewed Grayson about his effort and his view of the issue Tuesday. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

You started an online petition against intervention in Syria. Do you think it's gaining traction?

Yes, we've gotten 25,000 signatures in just a couple of days. It's a sign not only that the public is against attacking Syria, but also that they're willing to do something about it. [Ed. note: As of Wednesday afternoon, it was nearly 35,000.] We're seeing not only a lot of opposition in terms of numbers, but also a great deal of intensity. It's an unusual thing to post a petition online, not do anything to promote it, and see almost instantly 25,000 people sign up. We're going to put that to good use. We're going to have people calling their congressman and sending emails. In the case of congressmen who are on the fence, they'll hear from huge numbers of their constituents who want them to vote "no," and it's going to have a dramatic impact.

You also say you're going to whip your colleagues. Has that effort started?

We have started it. The first thing we have done is very carefully keeping track of what our what colleagues actually say about this. A very substantial number of Democrats and Republicans have come out against attacking Syria, and we have begun the process of informing our Democratic colleagues about what their other colleagues are saying. We're circulating a letter that quotes a dozen other Democrats in Congress, as well as me, who have stated their reasons against an attack.  That's the first step in what will be a very sophisticated process of persuading our open-minded colleagues on both sides of aisle.

Are you also working with Republicans on this effort?

I don't feel at liberty to go into a lot of detail about that at this point, but the answer is yes.

Are we going to see another vote like the Amash amendment, where both Democrats and Republicans were almost equally split on the issue of National Security Agency surveillance?

You're going to see Democrats and Republicans lining up against [the military authorization], but I think there's substantially more opposition to this than there was support for the Amash amendment already. The Washington Post is keeping track, and at this point, the number of members of the House who’ve spoken out against the resolution outnumber the declared supporters by more than three to one, and it's approaching four to one.

You're counting leaners as "no" votes? The Post has a smallish category for "opposed," but a large category in both houses that's leaning in that direction.

That in itself is very revealing, isn't it? There's no "leaning yes" category. When you actually look at the comments being made by those who are characterized as "leaning no," I think they're leaning pretty heavily. If anything, the sentiment when members talk to each other is far more negative than the public [statements] reflect. Particularly among Republicans -- the Republicans are hearing overwhelmingly from their own districts that this has nothing to do with us. We're talking about ordinary voters and activists both, they’re vehemently against this. If anything, what you're seeing in public is an understatement of the actual sentiment among House members.

We all come to this with an open mind -- I did, at least. But people heard the arguments, and now they're starting to hear from their constituents. Believe me, it's not going well for the pro-war point of view.

There was some thought that John Boehner and Eric Cantor coming out in favor of intervention might mean momentum was building in that direction. 

Absolutely not. I think it's a fantasy to talk about momentum. Conceivably it will end up losing two to one instead of four to one. But there certainly is no momentum in favor of the other side's point of view. They're going to have to line up a staggering percentage of the undecideds to even come close. The ones listed as undecided, I’ve talked to lot of them. They're not really undecided. They're just waiting for a prudent time to make clear that this doesn't make sense for America.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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