Sens. Rubio, Casey step into Syria fray with bipartisan sanctions bill

Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioGOP, Dems hear different things from Trump Senate committee to vote Monday on Tillerson Tillerson met with top State official: report MORE (R-Fla.) joined hands with Sen. Bob CaseyBob CaseyLive coverage: Senators grill Trump's Treasury pick Live coverage: Tom Price's confirmation hearing Senate Democrats brace for Trump era MORE (D-Pa.) on Tuesday to unveil legislation urging the White House to target banks that do business with Syria.

The bill underscores Congress' rising dissatisfaction with the Obama administration's limited intervention in the two-year-old conflict and Rubio's effort to position himself on the issue. The Tea Party favorite is a possible 2016 presidential contender.

In a foreign policy address last month, Rubio called for sending ammunition to the rebels battling Bashar Assad, but Tuesday's bill falls short of that, calling instead for nonlethal aid, such as helmets and radio communications equipment.

“When the people of a country rise up to remove from power a person who is so anti-American and so pro-terrorism as Bashar Assad, we should try to support them to the extent possible – within the limits of our national interest,” Rubio said. “That's why I'm so proud to be a part of this legislation, which increases the role that the United States can play while still ensuring we're not doing more than we should be doing.”

The bill expands sanctions on Syria's central bank and Syrian officials by targeting foreign financial institutions that do business with them. It also calls for the creation of a process to recover and dispose of the country's chemical weapons stockpile after the fall of Assad.

The legislation is far more cautious than a new bill from House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), which calls for $150 million in security assistance to vetted rebels, including weapons. 

Casey did not rule out eventually sending weapons to the rebels. He said his bill creates a vetting process, which could eventually be used to help transfer arms.

“Down the road,” he said, “we may make another determination.”