Democrats welcome break from Syria, chance to point voters toward Republican infighting on debt

By Laurie Kellman

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 11 2013 3:21 p.m. MDT

The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, Monday, June 17, 2013.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — The pressure off for now on Syria, Democrats are eager to return to Washington's regularly scheduled gridlock.

Pitched debates loom on the government's budget and its debt — never flattering endeavors that in recent years have sunk the nation's credit rating and Congress' popularity.

At least those debacles made both parties look bad. For Democrats, that's a welcome reprieve from the political turmoil President Barack Obama stirred with his on-off bid to get Congress to get behind the missile strike he wanted to launch against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons in a civil war.

As Obama looked to the United Nations to save him from a rejection by Congress, Democrats urged Americans to look instead at Republican infighting.

One issue is whether to use the threat of a government shutdown to torpedo Obama's health care law just as its biggest impacts are about to be felt. Another point of contention is whether to raise the nation's debt ceiling, a reminder of the 2011 standoff that brought the nation to the brink of default.

And then there are the automatic spending cuts and their burden on key Democratic constituencies — women, minorities and young people — in addition to the military's budget.

On all of those subjects roiling Republicans, Democrats see a political gain in blaming the GOP. Not so Obama's muddled Syria policy.

The president pulled back from what many believed were imminent retaliatory strikes to give Congress exactly the approval power lawmakers claimed after the White House's hard sell failed to attract support from the public or even a majority of his own party's House members. Only 16 Democratic senators and 14 Democratic House members were solidly in favor of his plan for limited strikes.

Russia's proposal for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons and avoid a U.S. military strike offered Obama a way out. Democrats eagerly pivoted back to their agenda. In public and private, they reminded Americans and themselves of the party's economic and educational agenda.

"If the Russia deal is a real deal, I think this evaporates very quickly" as an election issue, Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who chairs his party's campaign arm in the House, said Tuesday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. "I can't imagine voters waking up in one year and two months and saying, 'I'm going to cast my vote based on Syria.'"

Republicans, on the other hand, saw an advantage in keeping Syria alive as an issue. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, facing a tough re-election bid in Kentucky, had his campaign put together an appeal for political donations based on his opposition to Congress endorsing Obama's plan for a military strike.

"Today was a ringing example of why we need to keep Mitch fighting for us in the United States Senate," wrote campaign manager Jesse Benton. "Anything that you can contribute will go a long way towards our goal."

Democrats' effort to change the subject began in earnest Tuesday morning. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough began a classified briefing on Syria for House Democrats by reminding them of "all the economic issues and the jobs issues that are really important to the American people," according to a recounting for reporters afterward by Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi.

"We didn't just talk about what you all are probably here to hear about, and that's Syria," confirmed Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., the party caucus vice chairman.

Pelosi, however, still felt an obligation to provide cover for Obama. If the diplomatic effort fails, she said, the president should not wait on Congress to act before launching a military strike.

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