Already facing a time crunch to negotiate must-pass financial bills, a divided Congress must now balance those potential fiscal crises with a politically sensitive and possibly consuming debate over whether the United States should attack Syria.
Lawmakers are scheduled to debate and possibly vote next week on a resolution that would authorize a military strike against Syria. But senior congressional aides maintain that lawmakers will be able to manage that war resolution and still meet tight deadlines for a budget bill needed to keep the government open beyond Sept. 30 and legislation required to raise the government’s borrowing limit before mid-October.
But other congressional observers, including Capitol Hill aides, disagree. They argue that the short legislative timetable, combined with the deep political chasm separating House Republicans from the Obama administration and Senate Democrats on fiscal matters, would be further complicated by an unexpected debate on whether to make another military foray into the Middle East.
“It could have substantial impact on the fall agenda,” said one top aide. “The floor calendar in both houses has to be measured carefully.”
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, downplayed those concerns.
“We are confident we can address a resolution on the use of force in Syria and still meet our other obligations in a fiscally responsible manner," he said.
Still, the Syria debate could alter the political calculus for both sides in the upcoming debates over spending and raising the debt ceiling.
If Congress rejected the resolution giving Obama the authority to strike Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, it could weaken a president already saddled with sub-par approval ratings and strengthen the hand of House Republicans in upcoming fiscal negotiations.
But if Obama's resolution passes with strong bipartisan support, it could elevate the president's position and bolster his position in budget talks.
The politics of the 2014 congressional mid-term elections and the 2016 presidential race also could figure prominently in Congress' handling of Syria.
“Handing Obama an issue to rehabilitate himself with, with the public, isn’t something Republicans want to see happen,” a Republican political consultant said. “But they will have to balance the political effects of this and the situation as it relates to a real national security issue or threat to the U.S.”
In addition to squeezing the timetable for lawmakers who scheduled only nine work days for September, the debate over Syria has also renewed concerns over the automatic budget cuts, called the sequester, that kicked in earlier this year. Those cuts hit the Pentagon hard at a time when the U.S. would need additional funding to strike Syria.
Further complicating matters for the Republicans are their internal disagreements over what concessions to seek from Obama in exchange for approving the budget bill and debt ceiling increase.
A small but influential band of conservatives are advocating that House Republicans pass a budget bill that strips all funding for Obamacare, and to hold firm when the government shuts down because Obama refused to accept that defunding.
Most congressional Republicans are not inclined to demand Obamacare defunding as a condition for approving a government funding bill, but conservative activists are already warning the party’s leadership that the Syria debate shouldn't drain energy away from the fight over Obamacare.
“I suspect some may use the upcoming debate and votes on Syria as an excuse to punt on Obamacare — again,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a conservative activist group with considerable sway in the House. “But there are 27 days between now and [the beginning of the new fiscal year] Oct. 1. And even setting aside timing, the bottom line is that lawmakers cannot afford to be on the wrong side of either the intervention in Syria or the defund effort, let alone both.”