Leaving aside whether or not military action in Syria is a wise policy move for President Obama, politically a move to consult with Congress and debate the matter on the floor offers both risk and reward for the White House. In the worst case, the president suffers a legislative defeat similar to that of British Prime Minister David Cameron, catapulting him closer to lame duck status. In the best case, Obama is able to cobble together enough support to justify action against a dictator who has slaughtered thousands of his own citizens and has used weapons civil society has judged off limits.
Either way it ends up, having debates and votes impacts the politics of the issue in three key ways:
Get them on record: Recorded votes are the lifeblood of politics. The words "yay" and "nay" have propelled and sunk countless ambitious legislators since the dawn of democracy. On Syria, the president would be wise to try to get everyone, friend and foe, to make crystal clear where he or she stands on military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Those votes will come up again in 2014 and 2016 campaign advertisements on both sides.
Build a bipartisan coalition: Win or lose, the supporters of the president's plan will be a diverse group. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., don't agree on much, but both feel that the United States must do something to respond to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons. Even if Obama falls short of a majority, getting bipartisan support for the issue could lessen the sting for a president who has seen his biggest achievements pass on party line votes.
Divide the opposition: Though it would expose splits in his own party, President Obama could believe that the damage will be worse for the other side. Two of the early 2016 frontrunners in the Senate, Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, espouse what one could call a more isolationist foreign policy and oppose action in Syria. While a growing faction of the party supports that view, being strong on national defense has been a hallmark of the Republican Party for generations. Casting votes to the contrary could hurt Paul and Cruz among primary voters. Obama may figure that showing the well known divisions within his own party may be worth it to temper a few rising stars in the GOP.
After Secretary of State John Kerry's statement Friday, it seems as if a military strike on Syria is only a matter of time. However, Obama would be wise to make sure that Congress has the chance to make its voice formally heard before he pulls the trigger.