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 MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezJustice Dept intends to re-try Menendez in corruption case DACA is neither bipartisan nor in America's interest Senate DACA deal picks up GOP supporters MORE (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 McCainJohn Sidney McCainLawmakers worry about rise of fake video technology Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Trump set a good defense budget, but here is how to make it better MORE (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 BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerKamala Harris endorses Gavin Newsom for California governor Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response Billionaire Steyer to push for Dem House push MORE (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 UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallCongress fails miserably: For Asian-Americans, immigration proposals are personal attacks Senate rejects centrist immigration bill after Trump veto threat Dem senators want list of White House officials with interim security clearances MORE (N.M.) and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyLawmakers feel pressure on guns Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks Kasich’s campaign website tones down gun language after Florida shooting MORE (Conn.) joined Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulDem wins Kentucky state House seat in district Trump won by 49 points GOP's tax reform bait-and-switch will widen inequality Pentagon budget euphoria could be short-lived MORE 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 RubioMarco Antonio RubioColbert: Students taking action on gun violence 'give me hope' Lawmakers feel pressure on guns Florida lawmaker's aide fired after claiming shooting survivors were 'actors' MORE (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 CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCongress punts fight over Dreamers to March Drama surrounding Shulkin — what is the future of VA health care? Blackburn pushes back on potential Corker bid: 'I'm going to win' MORE (R-Tenn.). The chairman also worked with Rubio and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyDems hit stock buybacks in tax law fight Dem senator warns Mueller against issuing Russia report near 2018 election Dem praises gay US Olympian who feuded with Pence MORE 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 KerryJohn Forbes Kerry2020 Dem contenders travel to key primary states When it comes to Colombia, America is in a tough spot 36 people who could challenge Trump in 2020 MORE 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 ReidHarry Mason ReidWATCH: There is no Trump-Russia collusion and the media should stop pushing this The demise of debate in Congress ‘North by Northwest,’ the Carter Page remake MORE (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.

Please send tips and comments to Julian Pecquet: jpecquet@thehill.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @TheHillGlobal and @JPecquetTheHill

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