Confusion surrounds Obama request

The White House insisted Thursday it needed congressional approval to move ahead with its proposed program to train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition, amid confusion across the government as to whether that explicit authority was actually necessary.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said during an event at the Council on Foreign Relations that the president “already has the authority” for training and equipping Syrian rebels. And Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters the statement made by Levin was “true.”

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“I didn't say we need congressional authority,” Kirby added.

But a White House spokesman on Thursday said flatly that the administration would be unable to proceed with the equip-and-train program without explicit congressional approval.

“A key element of the strategy the president laid out in his address to the nation Wednesday night was the need to train and equip vetted members of the Syrian opposition. Before we can move forward with a new train-and-equip program, we need an authorization from Congress,” White House spokesman Shawn Turner said. “We’re hopeful that Congress will act quickly to provide that authorization.”  

The confusion seemed to stem partially from the complex web of authorizations that govern what the Pentagon can and cannot do. While the White House says it lacks authority specifically for the “train and equip” program proposed by the president, the Pentagon is able to provide support for the Syrian opposition outside of that specific initiative.

In fact, Kirby said Thursday, the Pentagon has already been providing the rebels with assistance.

“There's been military assistance provided,” Kirby said. “I'm not going to go into any more detail than that.”

The program was a central tenant of the counterterrorism strategy to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) unveiled by President Obama during his primetime address on Wednesday. The training facility would likely be hosted in Saudi Arabia, and would help train moderate Syrian opposition fighters battling ISIS and the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad within Syria's borders. The White House has said it needs a competent rebel fighting force to prevent ISIS from achieving a safe haven in Syria — or the Assad regime from benefiting from airstrikes against the terror group.

It’s unclear whether Congress will approve the authority. The House put off a planned vote on a government-funding measure that the White House wants to use as a vehicle for the authority. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other GOP leaders said a decision will be made next week.

Members of both parties are split over whether the authority should be granted, with some lawmakers expressing worry the aid could fall into the wrong hands.

There's also been confusion surrounding how the train-and-equip program would be funded. Kirby appeared to indicate Thursday that the program would need $500 million explicitly earmarked by congressional appropriators to get off the ground.

“We need that money to be able to move forward on that particular train-and-equip program it is obviously a priority for [Defense] Secretary [Chuck] Hagel, and he's going to continue consultations with the Congress to try to get it done,” Kirby said.

But defense and administration officials said later Thursday that was not the case. If lawmakers opt not to include the additional funding in the continuing resolution currently under review, the Pentagon can simply shift the funding in from other areas of the Overseas Contingency Operations budget.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said “that's why we're not focused right now on the budgetary aspect of this.”

“We’re focused right now on the authority aspect of this,” he continued. “We are — and again, it’s urgently needed authority. ... As it relates to the funding, we’re confident that we’ll be able to make the funding work. What we need explicitly, however, is the Title 10 authority that requires an act of Congress.”

An attempt to shoehorn the authorization into the stopgap spending bill currently being debated by Congress scrambled plans for a vote this week. Instead, House Republicans have moved a planned floor vote until at least next week. It remains unclear whether lawmakers will include the authorization as part of the CR — an approach preferred by the White House — or vote separately on the bill.