White House push to train Syrian rebels ties up funding fight

White House push to train Syrian rebels ties up funding fight

Legislation to prevent a government shutdown hit a wall Wednesday, as lawmakers splintered over whether to include a White House request for new authority to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels.

President Obama says the new powers are needed to help the rebels battle both the Syrian government and militants representing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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But vocal resistance from House Republicans led GOP leaders to push the vote on their stopgap spending bill, originally slated for Thursday, to next week while lawmakers are briefed on the president’s plan to confront the ISIS threat. 

“Given the severity of the situation and the need for all members to properly evaluate the president’s request, the House will postpone consideration of the continuing resolution,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on the House floor.

The announcement came just hours before Obama was to outline his ISIS strategy in a prime-time TV address.

“We stand ready and willing to listen to the president,” McCarthy said.

The postponement decision was also driven by the fact that House Democrats have yet to play their hand on the underlying continuing resolution (CR), which would fund the federal government at current levels through Dec. 11. 

A number of conservative Republicans have criticized both the timeline and a provision extending the charter of the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im), which helps finance the export of U.S. products. And Heritage Action, an influential conservative group, is urging lawmakers to oppose the package over the Ex-Im provision.

If enough Republicans defect, Democratic votes would be crucial to the measure’s passage, lending House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a good amount of leverage in the debate. 

A failure to enact a CR before Sept. 30 would lead to a partial government shutdown — a scenario GOP leaders are trying to avoid at all costs for fear of losing their political edge heading into November’s elections. Democrats, in contrast, would like nothing more than for talk of a shutdown to enter the national consciousness weeks before the midterms.

Pelosi on Wednesday declined to signal if Democrats would support the CR, saying it remains unclear what the final package will look like until it clears the Rules Committee. She made a point to condemn the Republicans’ short-term Ex-Im extension, but she also offered support for granting Obama the new authority outside the funding bill.

“It’s something we have to do, and we have to do it soon. And I would hope it would be part of the CR, or if not, some independent vehicle,” Pelosi told reporters, as she headed into a briefing on the Syria issue with administration officials. “I don’t know if that can start in the Senate, or if it has to start here. But it must be done before we leave.”

The Republicans’ decision to postpone the CR vote came after the White House staged a full-court press for the new powers to train Syrian moderates. 

At least a part of the administration’s impetus is political: The White House wants to get buy-in from Congress in order to spread the responsibility for whatever happens in the fight against ISIS. It would also present a united U.S. front to the world at a time when Obama is trying to win over global allies in the battle against terrorism.

Obama and Vice President Biden worked the phones with lawmakers Wednesday to lobby for the expanded Title 10 authority, which governs military powers, as part of the CR, while counterterrorism czar Lisa Monaco met on Capitol Hill with members from both parties for the same purpose. 

The calls included a conversation between Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) one day after the president met at the White House with the top four leaders of the House and Senate.

A White House official said Wednesday that, while the administration strongly preferred to include the authorization as part of the continuing resolution, there are other ways for lawmakers to approve the request. The official said intensive discussions with Congress were occurring behind the scenes. The official described the ask as a serious request that would both provide tangible tactical benefits to the president and signal a unified front behind the president’s strategy. 

The additional Title 10 authority would authorize the White House to train and advise the Syrian rebels — not merely equip them, as has been happening already. The legislation could also enable the U.S. to accept funding from foreign governments to bolster the Syrian opposition. The official declined to say whether the president believed he could move ahead on those fronts without explicit congressional authorization.

The administration’s lobbying met with immediate resistance from some top House Republicans.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who said Obama personally called him to request the new authority, wants the two bills to move separately.

“They’ve known about this problem for over a year,” Rogers said. “It’s a complicated, big-time change in policy. … Let us go ahead with a CR to keep the government going.”

A number of House Republicans — including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee’s subpanel on the Middle East — said they back Rogers’s view.

Still, public opinion polls have shown widespread support for tough military action against ISIS, which could make it difficult for those lawmakers who are reluctant to grant the president the new authority.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate offered their quick support for Obama’s request, and some top Senate Republicans followed suit.

“The other option is to do nothing, and by doing nothing for the last few years we’re seen 200,000 Syrians dead and millions displaced in refugee camps,” Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told The Hill. “It’s not without its risks, but we need to try to find some non-ISIS fighters, and train them and arm them so they can help us defeat ISIS.”

Obama first asked for the expanded authority in May, during his national security speech at West Point. But recent pressure to confront ISIS following the beheading of two U.S. journalists has given the issue new urgency.

A Republican leadership aide noted that, since the president’s original request, the White House has not submitted an operational plan detailing how the aid would be provided to rebel fighters. 

The aide also pointed out that three bipartisan bills that include programs to train and equip elements of the Syrian opposition have cleared committee and are awaiting Senate action.

Scott Wong and Cristina Marcos contributed.

This story was orginially posted at 2:49 p.m. and updated at 9:04 p.m.