Republicans' closing argument drowned out by ISIS debate
© Greg Nash

House Republicans are having their closing argument for the midterm elections drowned out by the debate over how to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL).

GOP leaders had carefully crafted a floor agenda for the brief September session that would emphasize various election themes.

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The messaging votes included targeting President Obama's healthcare law, hammering the Internal Revenue Service for its scrutiny of conservative nonprofits, highlighting so-called "jobs" bills that stalled in the Senate and condemning the Obama administration for not notifying Congress of the prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

But President Obama's request to arm vetted Syrian rebels against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has upstaged those floor votes.

Now, House GOP leaders are faced with a tough decision on how to respond to Obama's request.

The issue not only divides the GOP conference, but risks keeping the House in session for an extra week, depriving their members of valuable time on the campaign trail. 

House members already lost one day of campaigning after leadership announced that the chamber would reconvene Monday evening instead of Tuesday. The House will even be in session through Friday, a rarity for lawmakers who are usually only in Washington for three or four days at a time.

To be sure, the focus this September remains on Obama and how he is handling the threat from ISIS. That suits Republicans just fine, as they think Obama’s falling approval ratings will help them retake the Senate majority. 

Still, the Syrian fight is raising some unexpected problems for Republicans. 

The procedure used to consider the authorization to arm Syrian rebels is proving controversial. Members of both parties want a standalone vote on the contentious issue instead of tying it into an all-encompassing stopgap funding bill, also known as a continuing resolution (CR). 

One option would be to offer the authorization to arm the Syrian rebels as an amendment to the CR. That way, members could still have an individual on-the-record vote regarding ISIS, but the measure would still ultimately be incorporated in the CR sent to the Senate.

Alternatively, leadership might choose to bring up a separate bill on providing Obama Title 10 authority to train the Syrian rebels. The catch with such an option, however, is that it would eat up more House and Senate floor time.  

Consideration in the House of a stopgap funding bill and the authorization to arm Syrian rebels could come as soon as Tuesday.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who has served since 1981, said wrenches in original plans aren’t unusual.

"I hate to belittle the issue, and I will not, but these things happen. This is Congress. This is the legislature working. These things happen that you solve and move on," Rogers said.

Votes on remaining messaging bills are still planned for the upcoming week. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced Thursday that the repackaged "jobs bills” will hit the floor. The package includes measures that the House has already passed, including ones that renew expired tax breaks, limit regulations and repeal the mandate that all employers with 50 or more workers provide health insurance.

The House is also slated to vote on bills preventing IRS employees from using personal email accounts to conduct official business and establishing a process for firing federal employees who falsify or destroy records. Both are clearly aimed at the IRS following revelations that employees at the center of the House committees' investigation used their personal email for business purposes, as well as that nearly two years' worth of former IRS official Lois Lerner's emails could not be recovered.

Still, some Democrats were skeptical from the start that the fall session would wrap up quickly and without a hitch.

At a House Rules Committee hearing on the second day back in session, Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the panel's top Democrat, wasn't convinced that the government funding bill would pass by week's end. At the time, Democrats weren't sure the CR would pass given that conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action opposed it.

"We're going to get the CR done this week," House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) insisted.

"Let's wait ’til Thursday afternoon and see how far we get," Slaughter said. 

Within 24 hours of Slaughter's prediction, the vote had been postponed.