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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Flashes of friction surface for Biden and his allies in Congress

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the airstrikes Biden

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the airstrikes Biden ordered on Iranian-backed militia in Syria sends an unambiguous message: that the U.S. will act to protect its and coalition personnel. Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

Policy tensions between the Biden administration and congressional Democrats are cropping up.

After President Joe Biden ordered U.S. airstrikes over Syria in what he called a defensive move, Sen. Tim Kaine and a few fellow Democrats questioned the legality of the unilateral order, which they said echoed those under the Trump administration.

"Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional, absent extraordinary circumstances," Kaine (D-Va.) said. "The American people deserve to hear the Administration’s rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress."

In the House, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) went a step further, finding "absolutely no justification" for the Syria strike. "This makes President Biden the seventh consecutive U.S. president to order strikes in the Middle East," Khanna said.

The Pentagon briefed congressional leadership ahead of the attack last Thursday, a spokesperson for the White House said, with further discussions slated for the weekend. As if to complete the partisan role-reversal, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) expressed support for Biden's action.

In 2017, when then-President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike on Syria, Jen Psaki, now Biden's White House press secretary, questioned its legality on Twitter — even as Trump nemesis Hillary Clinton expressed support for that raid.

Another hairline crack in what's mostly been Democratic Party unity since Jan. 20 appeared when Biden sounded as if he were willing to accept a parliamentary ruling that excluded the proposed $15-hourly federal minimum wage from the latest COVID-19 relief and stimulus bill.

As the week ended, and the House approved the $1.9 trillion relief measure, progressives were assessing strategies to push the wage measure through. The Senate parliamentarian ruled Thursday that the wage proposal could not be included in the relief bill, under the rules of budget reconciliation.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) vowed to introduce an amendment that would penalize large companies that pay workers less than $15 an hour and offer to tax incentives to smaller businesses to reach that standard. Sanders rebuked the procedural decision.

Leaders of the Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate are forced to confront the fact that for now, their caucus margin is too thin to render any internal party rebellions harmless for them.

So far, however, the pandemic relief package as a whole looks popular enough around the country, even among rank-and-file Republicans, to boost its chances in Congress. "I'm a one-issue voter," said David Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City. "If it's good for cities, and especially for Oklahoma City, I'm going to be supportive. The $350 billion for cities and states is a no-brainer to me, regardless of your political party."

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