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WASHINGTON — He is aware of the fact that aligning with Obama this time, on a controversial issue that has split the nation, entails political risks even as Obama has put off the scheduled Congressional vote. “I’m a big boy, and I’ve been in Congress for 25 years already,” the 13-term congressman said. “This won’t be the first unpopular vote I’ve taken.” But with the risks come potential rewards for Engel, as he finds himself fighting the president’s war in Congress in what could be the start of a new friendship with the Obama White House.
On the other end of the Jewish Democratic political spectrum, Grayson faces the opposite challenge. A critic of the administration’s foreign policy from the left, Grayson is emerging from the Syrian debate distanced from the president, but with strong credentials in progressive political circles.
Grayson, representing a Florida district that includes the city of Orlando, served one term in Congress before losing his seat in the 2010 Republican tidal wave that swept many Democratic newcomers. He came back to reclaim his seat in 2012 and has since served on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East. Its been a fruitful year for Grayson, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC and who in August was ranked by Slate as the most effective lawmaker, thanks to his success in passing more amendments than any other member.
On Syria, Grayson initially stood out among the anti-war members because he questioned not just the wisdom of launching a military strike against the Assad regime, but also the validity of the claims that the Syrian president indeed used chemical weapons against his own people. In a September 10 interview, Grayson made clear that he is convinced there the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, but he stressed that there is no evidence that Assad ordered the attack.
“I’m saying what many others think but almost no one else has the courage to say,” Grayson said about his newly achieved unofficial position as leader of the opposition to Obama on Syria. His goal, he said, is not only to mobilize the opposition to an attack, but also to show the administration “the vehemence of this opposition.”
Though he represents a central Florida district with many conservative and evangelical voters, Grayson has campaigned and voted on a strictly liberal platform. He has made a name for himself not only as an outspoken critic of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but also as a Democrat who does not shy away from a good political fight. Grayson is known for taking to the airways time and again to blast conservative pundits. He famously attacked Republican critics of Obama’s health care reform as supporting a policy stating that sick people should just “die quickly.”
On September 10 Grayson hosted a visit by AIPAC activists in his office. The AIPAC members tried to convince Grayson about the necessity of approving a military strike against Syria, but the Florida congressman believes that Israel would in fact be in danger if Congress were to approve the strike.
“Assad and his father have been in power for 40 years, and this is the first time the government of Israel had to supply gas masks to its citizens for fear of a Syrian chemical attack,” he told the Forward.
Grayson also argued that a military strike would degrade Assad’s control over chemical weapons. This would only increase the risk to Israel from these weapons, which could find their way into the hands of those wishing to harm Israel.
“All of us understand that there is a risk to Israel here, and the question is who can do the best to help them and to help America,” Grayson said of the difference of opinion between his approach and that of AIPAC in this case. Despite his liberal views, Grayson is considered a supporter of AIPAC and has been instrumental in strengthening legislation toughening sanctions against Iran.
While they disagree on the need for military force in Syria, Engel and Grayson both find the recent compromise proposed by Russia, under which Syria will give up its chemical weapons stockpile, to be a positive development.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is the only solution for the problem,” Grayson said. Engel added, “This is definitely something worth exploring,” though he warned that he wouldn’t “go to the bank with promises from Assad and Putin.”