House Republican leaders pitch Syria aid with checks on Obama

Francis Riviera

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House Republican leaders on Tuesday will try to sell skeptical rank-and-file members on their plan granting President Obama’s request for authority to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels but with several congressional checks on his power.

During a closed-door morning meeting, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other leaders will try to win over their conference by arguing they are curbing Obama’s authority and requiring top administration officials to regularly keep Congress in the loop.

Both the Syria legislation and the larger stopgap spending bill to fund the government will be debated Tuesday, with a vote expected on Wednesday, said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). The seven-page Syria measure was introduced as an amendment to the funding bill Congress needs to pass to keep the government open through Dec. 11.

The Republican-dominated Rules Committee approved a rule Monday night for attaching the Syria amendment to the continuing resolution (CR).

A vote on the broader use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) isn’t expected to happen until after Election Day.

“I think after November, there’s an opportunity and probably a debate for that, seeing what transpires,” McCarthy told reporters in the Capitol on Monday. “I know a lot of members would want to start to have that debate or have that discussion.”

The narrower amendment, offered by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), includes several provisions intended to soothe Republicans and Democrats worried about giving the administration blanket authority to arm and train Free Syrian Army rebel groups, which would be used in the fight against ISIS.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would have to give lawmakers a heads-up at least 15 days before beginning any training of opposition fighters — a provision offered by administration officials, aides said.

And the Pentagon would need to give an update to lawmakers every 90 days.

The language also limits presidential authority through mid-December, and states Obama does not have the green light to send in U.S. combat troops.

The rollout of the amendment comes amid a full-court press by the White House to pressure Congress to quickly send the legislation to Obama’s desk. The president has personally been calling lawmakers on Capitol Hill urging them to grant him authority, and he’ll be making more calls in the coming days.

The White House feels good about the chances for getting authorization for the package through Congress, a senior administration official said. Obama spoke with lawmakers from both parties on Monday and, according to the official, is personally gratified that he has received support from Republican and Democratic leaders for the proposal.

According to the White House, officials weren’t sure the idea would receive bipartisan support with the public still wary of military action following the Bush years. But, the official said, congressional leaders expressed bipartisan agreement for that path forward during an Oval Office meeting last week with Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Boehner and Obama spoke last Wednesday on the telephone and have cooperated in trying to move the package forward — a sharp shift from the chilliness over much of the last year.

Senior GOP leadership aides said they’re confident they have the votes to pass the Syria amendment. But a big test will come Tuesday morning when Boehner faces members of his conference, some of whom are downright dubious of arming the rebel fighters.

“I don’t support arming the Free Syrian Army because we don’t know who they are,” Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) told The Hill last week.

Some specifics in the Syria measure shared Monday are intended to assuage those doubts. Members want to “keep tabs” on the number of Syrian rebel troops trained and deployed, as well as on how effective they are on the battlefield and what’s happened to the equipment they’ve used, said an aide familiar with the plan.

The Pentagon would be required to list every individual recruited, and would have to provide information on each person’s background, including any possible links to terrorist organizations.

But the bill would not prohibit people with links to terrorist groups from actually participating in the program, the aide said. Such a blanket prohibition could make it tougher to recruit people.

The aide said this language is intended to provide congressional oversight without hindering the mission.

“We’re not asking for something that makes this mission impossible,” the aide said.

Some Democrats have called on Congress to vote to authorize the administration to use military force in the fight against ISIS.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who plans to offer use-of-force legislation on Tuesday, has argued Obama needs explicit approval from Congress before he can launch what the White House referred to as a “war” against ISIS.

But McKeon’s Syria resolution only authorizes the president to equip and train the rebels until Dec. 11, when more permanent authority will be included in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
Defense hawks across the Capitol raised concerns Monday about requiring a sunset on military aid for Syrian rebels.

“I don’t want to make it hard for DOD to start the program and have to stop it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters Monday. “Either we need to agree with the idea of training the Free Syrian Army or not. If you don’t agree, say so.”

The White House has already launched limited airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and Obama has signaled his intention to extend those strikes to Syria. The administration is using the 2001 authorization of military force passed by Congress for the war on terror as its authority for those strikes.

The McKeon amendment would specially grant the administration Title X authority, which would allow it to establish a center to train and equip members of the Syrian opposition, who are battling both ISIS and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Justin Sink and Mike Lillis contributed.

This story was posted at 2:25 p.m. and updated at 3:13 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.

Tags Barack Obama House Armed Services Committee Iraq Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Syria

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