The House rebuffed an attempt late Wednesday night to eliminate funding for the Obama administration's program to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Rep. Curt Clawson's (R-Fla.) amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill failed by a vote of 107-323. His provision would have stripped out the $600 million allocated to assist vetted Syrian opposition groups to defend Syria from ISIS militants and use the money instead to reduce the deficit.
Clawson compared the Obama administration's dependence on what he described as "untested" Syrian rebels to serve as "vicarious fighters" against ISIS to the U.S. providing assistance in the 1970s to mujahadeen fighters to combat the Soviet Union. Those militants ultimately became the Taliban.
"Whatever the number of Syrian rebels we ultimately introduce into the battlefield, they alone, I believe, are unlikely to turn the tide, nor are these rebels expected to end the Assad government, even though that too is one of our stated goals," Clawson said.
Congress first authorized $500 million in September to train and equip the Syrian rebels to fight ISIS' gains in the Middle East. Since then, lawmakers have yet to debate a formal authorization of military force against ISIS.
Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE (R-N.J.), the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that authored the defense measure, said eliminating the funds for the Syrian train-and-equip program altogether would be counterproductive.
"It attempts to tie the U.S. government's hands in navigating the complicated situation," Frelinghuysen said. "We have to be realistic."
The 2016 defense appropriations bill is being considered under a process that allows lawmakers to offer an unlimited number of amendments, albeit with only ten minutes of debate each. Frelinghuysen noted the limits of debating an issue with the magnitude of war given such time constraints.
"While I appreciate the sentiment of the amendment, this is a complicated issue. That's an understatement. It's a multifaceted policy with multifaceted policy ramifications that really can't be fully debated in five or ten minutes," Frelinghuysen said.
In a display of strange political bedfellows, Clawson, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, allied with Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) on a separate amendment to further eliminate the $715 million allocated for equipping the Iraqi government and Kurdish military forces against ISIS.
President Obama said this week that the U.S. does not yet have a "complete strategy" to train and equip Iraqi forces to fight ISIS.
Nolan said the amendment would "save us a lot of money and, quite frankly, end a sad chapter in American history."
"The administration, as we all know, is now urging strategic patience with Iraq. The truth is, we've had a failed strategy there from the very beginning," Nolan said. "We really have no friends in this conflict."
Frelinghuysen acknowledged he was "very conflicted," but stressed that "there are some good guys over there." He maintained Congress shouldn't give up on all parts of Iraq.
"I'd hate to abandon the people of Iraq without giving it one more try," Frelinghuysen said.
In the end, the House similarly defeated Nolan's amendment by a vote of 56-375.
Final passage of the $578.6 billion defense spending bill is expected Thursday or Friday.