New Mexico’s congressional delegation, with four Democrats and one Republican, usually projects a pretty unified front.
Sure, Rep. Steve Pearce, the delegation’s lone Republican, is often on the opposite side of the fence from the delegation’s Democrats on big issues. But for the most part, the state’s representation in Washington is pretty predictable.
The Syrian crisis, however – and the question of whether to authorize a U.S. strike against Bashar al-Assad’s regime – has shattered any notion of predictability. On Saturday, Russia and the U.S. reached a formal agreement that would pave the way for Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal to be removed or destroyed by the middle of 2014, which postpones for now the possibility of airstrikes.
Two weeks after President Obama’s call for force against Assad for using chemical weapons, Pearce, a conservative, was siding with Sen. Tom Udall, a liberal, in staunch opposition to U.S. intervention.
Two other delegation Democrats – Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Lujan – have not taken a public stand on President Obama’s request that Congress authorize him to strike Assad’s regime.
I spoke to both at length last week and came away with the impression that while neither relishes military action in Syria, if it came to a vote, Lujan Grisham would be more inclined to support Obama on use of force than Lujan would.
Then there’s Sen. Martin Heinrich, the freshman Democrat and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who announced his support for a strike Monday.
Heinrich’s announcement came at the exact same time as Russia got involved, proposing to help avert a strike by forcing Syria, its close ally, to turn over its cache of chemical weapons, estimated to be the third largest in the world.
Russia’s offer undoubtedly came as a huge sigh of relief for many members of Congress, at least 200 of which hadn’t taken positions prior to hearing the news. A vote that had seemed imminent was indefinitely postponed.
Heinrich, however, told me in an interview last week he had no regrets about airing his position and suggested his announcement could have even played a part in getting the Russians involved.
“Just because we’re finally seeing some diplomatic progress, that’s not an excuse not to make the hard decisions,” Heinrich said. “If it provided a little bit of momentum when we really needed it to get these folks (the Russians) to the table, I think that’s a positive.
“We saw absolutely no motion from the Russians for a very long time until the president put this (threat of a military strike) out there,” Heinrich added. “We’re finally seeing diplomatic efforts have a chance because the president is presenting the very real and credible threat of military action.
Heinrich also elaborated on his general support for a U.S. strike.
“There is concern that if we don’t have an international response to Assad’s action then not only would he be emboldened to do this again but in the long run we could see this (chemical weapons) proliferate to other places,” the senator said. “American soldiers could face chemical weapons attacks in the future.”
Heinrich said other dictators could be emboldened by a lack of U.S. action.
“It would send the message that if you’re a dictator like Assad, there is real security to be gained by illegally acquiring and producing chemical weapons to subjugate your own populations,” Heinrich reasoned.
The senator, who has participated in numerous classified and troubling briefings on Syria, said he worried global inaction would only embolden Assad.
“I’ve seen someone who is very calculating in how he tests the international community,” Heinrich said. “I was very concerned that if he didn’t get a strong international message, this is someone who is probably very likely to ramp up in the future.”
Heinrich also acknowledged his position is a fairly lonely one – at least at the moment.
“I’m sure there are many, many New Mexicans who disagree with me on this one,” Heinrich said. “I just think there is a lot at stake for our country and on the moral grounds and in the long run.”