Senate panel delivers bipartisan rebuke to Obama with vote to arm Syrian rebels

A bill to arm the Syrian opposition cleared its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday, easily passing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 15 to 3.

The lopsided vote is a bipartisan rebuke for President Obama, whose administration has consistently raised concerns that such weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militants. Lawmakers, however, say the ongoing violence in Syria – more than 70,000 people have been killed in the 26-month-old civil war – and fears that Islamists are gaining the upper hand among the rebel groups supersede those concerns.

“The time to act and turn the tide against Assad is now,” said the panel’s Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “Let’s be clear about the choices we face. The choice here is not between arming and not arming. The choice is between the United States stepping in and trying to do this in a responsible fashion or leaving it to others who will simply arm the extremists.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long led the charge for a more forceful U.S. response, said the bill “sends a signal to the administration and maybe to the people of Syria … that they have a certain amount of support from the Senate and I hope soon from the Congress of the United States.”

And Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the bill would put the “wind” at the administration’s back should it decide to act on the legislative authorization.

Democratic Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.) and Chris Murphy (Conn.) joined Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul in opposing the bill, raising the same kinds of concerns as the White House.

“We’re providing arms, I think, into a very chaotic situation,” said Udall, calling for a hearing with regional experts and the administration ahead of taking such action. The then-secretaries of State and Defense joined the CIA director and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last summer to urge such action, but were voted down by the White House.

“I know everyone here wants to do the right thing,” said Paul, “but I think it’s a rush to war.”

Paul repeatedly argued that the bill’s proponents are voting to arm allies of al Qaeda, which is fighting to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) countered that not voting for the bill ensures that al Qaeda and the Assad regime are the only groups adequately armed.

The bill’s defenders said it does not authorize the use of force or put U.S. boots on the ground. Menendez and Boxer pointed out that they voted against the use of force in Iraq a decade ago.

Menendez introduced the bill earlier this month, along with ranking member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). The chairman also worked with Rubio and Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) to incorporate elements of their legislation slapping more sanctions on Syria’s central bank.

The panel easily defeated an amendment from Udall to restrict U.S. aid to light weapons. McCain said Udall’s amendment would have the rebels using “shotguns against Scud missiles.”

The vote comes as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the Middle East on Tuesday to build support for a last-ditch effort to negotiate a peaceful end to the war. The U.S. and Russia are pushing for peace talks between the Assad government and rebels under the auspices of the United Nations next month in Geneva.

The lopsided vote creates pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to schedule a vote on the bill, and for the House to take up similar legislation. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced such a bill in March.

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This story was posted at 3:35 p.m. and updated at 7:57 p.m.