On Syria, Senate's Vulnerable Democrats Are All Over the Map

Some members in tight races are running away from Obama's strategy.

It's not often that Sen. Mark Begich, who has worked to define himself as a conservative Democrat, finds himself on the same side as his more liberal colleague Mark Udall—against the president.

As Congress prepares this week to pass a measure approving of President Obama's plan to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, an unusual group of allies is rising in opposition. Facing tough campaigns against Republican opponents this November, Begich and Udall are singing similar tunes. Both senators warned this week that they will oppose the president's request to arm and train rebel fighters in the region over fears that any weapons provided to the opposition could quickly fall into ISIS's hands.

Begich, who also cited concerns that the federal government has already spent too much money to prop up Syrian opposition in the region with few results, went a step further than Udall. Begich said Monday that it is "very possible" that he will vote against funding the government through December if the authorization measure is included in that package, which appears increasingly likely.

Despite his objections to the ISIS plan, Udall has not said whether he will oppose the continuing-resolution package. His office said that it was too early to say how the senator would vote, until the House clears the bill. Udall's concern is with the potential scope of American involvement in the country, comparing the measure before the Senate this week to the Iraq War authorization in 2002. Signaling agreement with his opponent, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, Udall said that he does not support any American boots on the ground in the region.

"The American people must be assured that we are not pursuing another open-ended conflict in the Middle East, and I will not give this president—or any other president—a blank check to begin another land war in Iraq," Udall said in a statement.

In a sign of how politically complex the Syrian issue has become, several other vulnerable Democrats have made the opposite choice, signaling support for Obama's request.

Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas—all of whom are battling to keep their seats—have offered cautious support for the president's plan. So too, have Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Al Franken, D-Minn., who are also up for reelection, but hold somewhat stronger leads over their Republican opponents.

Shaheen, for example, signaled that she would support the authorization measure, noting that she voted in favor of arming the Syrian opposition in a vote before the Senate Armed Services Committee. But, like the others, Shaheen left the door slightly ajar, saying that she wanted to see the final language of the ISIS authorization before making a commitment to vote one way or the other.

Pryor said that he is "leaning toward" supporting the authorization measure, but added that he too has "concerns" about weapons falling into the wrong hands. Moreover, he said, "People we train today could be our enemies tomorrow."

Democrats supporting the bill appear to have the support of voters, at least on a national level. A recent Pew poll shows that a majority of Democratic voters support the plan. A full 60 percent of Democrats—and 64 percent of Republicans—said that they support the White House's proposal.

But, the same poll shows that 54 percent of Democrats nationwide say they worry the plan could go too far.

That concern is shared by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a liberal dove who is not up for reelection until 2018 and also finds himself in an unlikely alignment with Begich. Like his Alaskan colleague, Murphy has indicated that he will likely oppose the CR. Murphy said Tuesday that he is in conversations with the White House, but warned that he will be forced to vote against the package if his concerns about arming the Syrian rebels are not addressed. "I'm not going to be convinced to vote for this simply because it's attached to the CR," he said.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, has also indicated that he could oppose the CR. Unlike Begich, Manchin is not up for reelection until 2018, but he is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country. Republican opposition groups began running television ads against him in West Virginia more than a year ago.

Manchin has said repeatedly that he will vote "strongly no" on arming the Syrian rebels and said it would be "disingenuine" of the House to include it in the CR package, though he expects they will. Manchin stopped short of issuing a threat to vote against the combined package, but said that he feels very strongly that the current plan to combat ISIS is the wrong move and will have to consider it.

Begich, Murphy, and Manchin all said that they would prefer separate votes on the ISIS authorization and the government-funding mechanism, but that decision is out of their hands and the House appears poised to send both measures over to the Senate in a single package later this week.

That puts these Senate Democrats in the awkward position of now threatening to vote against the continuing resolution—which must be passed to avoid a government shutdown Oct. 1—over their disagreement with the president's plan to combat ISIS, just months after they waged an ad campaign against Republicans for shutting down the government last fall.

The difference: The continuing resolution is almost certainly going to pass without them, freeing up vulnerable and dissident Democrats to cast a protest vote against the ISIS plan.