House approves Obama request for Syria in broad bipartisan vote

Greg Nash

The House overwhelmingly voted Wednesday to grant President Obama authority to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels waging war against Islamic extremists.

Despite vocal opposition from both war-weary liberals and defense hawks who feel the Syria plan should include more robust steps, majorities in both conferences voted 273-156 to back Obama’s plan to give military aid to vetted members of the Free Syrian Army.

{mosads}The “yes” vote was made up of 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats; opposition was just as bipartisan, with 85 Democrats and 71 Republicans voting no. The Syria language was considered as an amendment to a stopgap funding bill to avert a government shutdown on Oct. 1.

A coalition of unusual bedfellows voted against the amendment, including Democratic Reps. Jim McGovern (Mass.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Steve Stockman (Texas). Members on such opposite sides of the ideological spectrum rarely vote together on major issues.

That $1 trillion continuing resolution (CR) easily cleared the House in a 319-108 vote and was sent over to the Senate, which is expected to pass it on Thursday.

“You saw Republicans and Democrats come together,” the new majority whip, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), told reporters after the vote. “The president asked for an authorization, and we approved that authorization with some accountability steps in place.”

Earlier in the day, Obama pledged that he would not send in ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), saying it’s more effective to support military allies “so they can secure their own countries future.”

The president’s comments were aimed at soothing members unnerved by comments a day earlier from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. Martin Dempsey raised the possibility that U.S. ground troops could be used against ISIS on a “case-by-case” basis.

“I will not commit you, and the rest of our Armed Forces, to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” Obama declared flatly during an appearance at Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base, which houses U.S. Central Command.

Wednesday’s vote teed up a larger debate over whether Congress should vote to authorize a broader war against ISIS fighters. Members of both parties said Congress should consider a full authorization of military force against the terror group — or at least have that fight out in the open.

“I think more and more members are beginning to understand that this is the beginning of what I think is going to be a very necessary and intense debate about what we should be doing there,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus and a “no” vote on the Syria amendment and CR. 

“I think it will be a lame-duck debate,” he said.

The narrower Syria amendment, introduced by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and backed by congressional leaders in both parties, places some restrictions on the president’s authority.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would have to notify lawmakers at least 15 days before beginning any training of Syrian rebels, and would have to ensure all fighters being trained in the program receive background checks. The Pentagon also would be required to provide status briefings to Congress every 90 days.

But the McKeon amendment explicitly does not authorize the use of military force against ISIS.

White House officials have argued that the military authorization passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has allowed them to carry out targeted air strikes against ISIS in Iraq.

But there are Republicans and Democrats alike who want to see a vote on a full-scale military authorization in the near future — a way to ensure Congress doesn’t cede its constitutional power to declare war.

Bachmann, who voted against the amendment, said that the U.S. should establish a full-scale military authorization instead of using potentially unreliable Syrian rebels as a proxy to fight ISIS.

“It seems to me we should take our best possible tool, which is the United States military, and with all resources at our fingertips, defeat the Islamic State as quickly as we possibly can,” said Bachmann, who serves on the Intelligence Committee.

Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas), who backed the Syria measure, said it would be his “strong desire” for Congress to vote on full authorization.

“You’ve got the War Powers Act expiring,” he told The Hill, “but I think with the threat landscape evolving the way it has been, you’d have to update it.”

Despite opposition from many anti-war Democrats, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who serves as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that supporting the proposal was better than if the U.S. were to do nothing in response to ISIS.

“ISIL is not just a threat. It is a savage threat. And what message do we send to the potential beheaders around the world if we bury our head in the sand?” Israel said.

Other liberal Democrats remained skeptical that arming the Syrian rebels and becoming involved in a Middle East conflict would effectively protect the U.S. from a terrorist threat from ISIS.

“I cannot support what could turn into a war on three fronts: fighting ISIS in Iraq, fighting ISIS in Syria and potentially [President Bashar] Assad in Syria,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).

This story was updated at 6:28 p.m. 

Tags Chuck Hagel Invasion of Iraq ISIS Michele Bachmann Steve Stockman Syria
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