WASHINGTON — In President Barack Obama's telling, Congress plays host to an "endless parade of distractions and political posturing." It is the "challenging" place where his second-term agenda meets Washington gridlock, forcing him to issue executive orders and make appeals to the public to get anything done.
Yet now the president has chosen to hand over one of his most pressing foreign policy decisions to the very crowd that has vowed to block him at every turn.
By asking Congress for authorization to retaliate against Syria for using chemical weapons, Obama has put himself at the mercy of an institution that has bedeviled his presidency for years. He has risked his credibility — at home and abroad — on a bet that Washington's partisan divisions will take a back seat during this debate. And he has bowed to the reality that some of the loudest demands for a Syria vote have come from his allies on Capitol Hill.
"You go to war with the Congress you have, not the Congress you wish you had," said Matt Bennett, a former senior aide to President Bill Clinton. "He doesn't have a Congress he can trust, but he feels that this is weighty enough that the Congress should be involved."
The week ahead will feature a high-stakes lobbying effort by the administration for military action, some of it classified and behind closed-doors, even as lawmakers trickle back to Washington from their long summer break.
Despite assurances on the talk shows by Secretary of State John Kerry that Congress will approve action, early indications suggest that the Syria debate may face a version of the paralyzing politics that have repeatedly blocked Obama's legislative proposals on gun control, immigration, climate change, expanded preschool, infrastructure spending, taxes, housing and the federal budget.
That could be especially true in the House, where a coalition of tea party conservatives, liberal Democrats and libertarians already appears to be preparing to oppose the use of military force in Syria. And even in the Senate, some members began lining up to announce their opposition well ahead of the start of a debate in that chamber.
"I think it's a mistake to get involved in the Syrian civil war," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday morning. "I don't see American interests involved on either side of this war."
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said he would vote no and predicted that lawmakers would not give the president the authorization that he seeks.
Obama's willingness to place his faith in lawmakers is particularly unexpected for a president who has spent much of his second term trying to find creative ways to work around their judgment, issuing executive actions and taking other actions.
David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to the president, said he hoped members of Congress would treat the issue of a military attack differently than they had many domestic issues.
"It would be beyond tragic if, on an issue like this, people started making political calculations about damaging the president," Axelrod said. "He's chosen to put his faith, not necessarily in the Congress, but in our laws and traditions. It'll be an interesting week to see how that works out."
Dan Pfeiffer, the president's senior adviser, said that "the fact of divided government and polarized politics is exactly why it is so important that Congress play a role in such an important decision for our country."