House Republicans emerged from a Tuesday morning conference meeting predicting a proposal to arm Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will pass — but only if Democrats provide significant support.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said he wasn’t sure his amendment granting President Obama’s request for congressional authority would be backed by a majority of Republican lawmakers, many of whom expressed deep reservations about the plan.
“It's going to take a bipartisan coalition to pass it, and I think it'll be bipartisan opposition,” Cole said.
A number of Democrats on Tuesday said they weren’t sure they would support the measure either, though Democratic leaders have spoken in favor of granting Obama’s request.
The House Democratic conference is scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. for what could be a pivotal discussion on their party’s strategy.
The House is expected to vote on the amendment to a stopgap funding bill on Wednesday, which would provide enough time to send the full spending measure to the Senate. GOP leaders will be whipping the vote count for the amendment on Tuesday.
Separately, White House officials have been lobbying members of both parties hard to back the amendment.
In the Senate, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) criticized the GOP amendment as too vague and said he’d like to make several changes to it.
“It’s not written as clearly as it should be. We’re talking about going into Syria at this point, which is a dog’s breakfast of violence and terrorism,” he said.
If the House is able to approve the measure on Wednesday, however, there would be enormous pressure on the Senate to accept it as is.
Still, McKeon said he wasn’t sure the measure would be supported by a majority of House Republicans, many of whom have raised questions about whether the measure would be effective against ISIS.
Other House Republicans questioned whether arms could fall into the wrong hands.
“We're going to try to put up some fledgling group of folks that we don't even know are going to hold onto the weapons,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), who plans to vote against the amendment.
He said U.S. armed forces would be better equipped with a new authorization of military force.
“I would vote for a complete authorization of force. I think that is time to do another one. I do not believe the one that was given to [former President George W.] Bush a decade ago is adequate,” Salmon said.
The administration is using the 2001 authorization of military force passed by Congress in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as the legal justification for its air strikes in Iraq.
Boehner called the president’s plan to train vetted Free Syrian Army fighters “a sound one” but acknowledged more needed to be done to completely decimate ISIS.
“We’ve got to do more than train a few folks in Iraq and train a few folks in Syria and drop some bombs,” Boehner said during a Tuesday news conference. “I just don’t know if it’s enough to achieve the goal that the president outlined.”
Congress could take up broader military use-of-force authorization at a later date, the speaker said, but so far Obama has not made that request or sent up a resolution to Capitol Hill.
The narrower Syria amendment “does not preclude us from revisiting the issue over broader use of military force,” Boehner said. “I believe it’s important for Congress to speak on this issue and I believe that we will.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said he remained undecided about voting for the amendment, saying that as the measure is written, “it suggests that we're going to be arming the wrong people.”
He charged that the Free Syrian Army was composed of “many people who are radical Islamists who hate us as much as” ISIS.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said nothing he heard in the meeting could persuade him to vote for the Syria amendment. Vetting the Syrian rebels would simply take too long, he said.
“In order to know them well would take a long time,” Miller said in a brief interview. “This is an immediate threat.”
McKeon defended his amendment, saying tweaks his panel made to the administration’s request would garner support for the plan while providing congressional oversight.
“It narrowed it down. It gave the fact that we're going to have oversight,” McKeon told reporters.
McKeon’s amendment calls for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to notify lawmakers at least 15 days before beginning any training of opposition fighters. The Pentagon would then have to update Congress on the effort every 90 days and would have to do background checks on all individuals taking part in the training program.
The McKeon amendment does not provide authority for air strikes against ISIS, which Obama has already carried out in Iraq and plans to carry out in Syria.
The president has also sent more than 1,000 military advisers to Iraq, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told a Senate panel on Wednesday that those advisers could be sent into battle with Iraqi ground troops.
This story was updated at 12:35 p.m.