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) MenendezCNN anchors break into laughter over comedian's alleged prank call to Trump Comedian claims he tricked Trump while impersonating Dem senator Schumer: Obama 'very amenable' to helping Senate Dems in midterms 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 McCainThe Memo: Summit fallout hits White House Graham: Biggest problem is Trump ‘believes meddling equals collusion’ Obama, Bush veterans dismiss Trump-Putin interpreter subpoena 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 on 2020 presidential bid: ‘I’m not ruling it out’ The ‘bang for the buck’ theory fueling Trump’s infrastructure plan Kamala Harris endorses Gavin Newsom for California governor 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 UdallEPA deputy says he's not interested in Pruitt’s job Latina Leaders to Watch 2018 Overnight Energy: Spending bill targets Pruitt | Ryan not paying 'close attention' to Pruitt controversies | Yellowstone park chief learned of dismissal through press release MORE (N.M.) and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDem senator ties Kavanaugh confirmation vote to Trump-Putin controversy Full interview: Chris Murphy speaks out on the Trump-Putin meeting and what it means Dem senator: NATO has become 'functionally obsolete' under Trump MORE (Conn.) joined Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia GOP leader blocks resolution backing intelligence community on Russia Rand Paul blocks Sanders's Russia resolution, calls it 'crazy hatred' against Trump 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 RubioRubio: Crisis in Nicaragua could lead to civil war Release of Carter Page surveillance documents reignites debate Graham: Warrant for Carter Page surveillance was 'a bunch of garbage' 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 has five ways to show American power against Russia History argues for Democratic Senate gains GOP to White House: End summit mystery MORE (R-Tenn.). The chairman also worked with Rubio and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains Overnight Health Care: Trump officials explore importing prescription drugs | Key ObamaCare, drug pricing regs under review | GOP looks to blunt attacks on rising premiums | Merck to lower some drug prices Dems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions 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 KerryKerry: Trump attacks on Biden are 'unbecoming of a president' Congress has five ways to show American power against Russia Sunday shows preview: Questions linger over Trump-Putin summit 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 ReidSenate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Don’t worry (too much) about Kavanaugh changing the Supreme Court Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick 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.

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