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OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate approves aid for Syrian rebels

THE TOPLINE: The Senate on Thursday easily approved a $1 trillion government-funding bill that incorporated new authority for President Obama to battle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Lawmakers voted 78-22 for the bill, while 9 Democrats, 12 Republicans and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) voted against.

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The “no” votes included several lawmakers viewed as possible presidential contenders in both parties, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

The legislation, approved by the House on Wednesday, now heads to President Obama for his signature.

Obama praised lawmakers after the vote, thanking them “for the speed and seriousness with which they approached this urgent issue.”

The president said the U.S. was pressing ahead to build a broad coalition to defeat ISIS and cited the support of more than 40 nations, including France, which announced Thursday that it would join in airstrikes.

Several lawmakers were skeptical of the plan to assist Syrian rebels to take on ISIS, concerned that it would be impossible to ensure the weapons do not wind in the wrong hands.

Others balked at lumping the Syria authority together with the funding bill that would keep the government running until mid-December.

Some lawmakers raised concerns that the Syria authorization could open the door to a broader military campaign.

Obama sought to ease those fears Thursday, saying again that the American troops deployed to help Iraqi forces fight ISIS “will not have a combat mission.”

With the Senate vote completed, lawmakers are now headed home with November’s midterms looming.

House and Senate leaders, though, have said they will return to discuss ISIS after the election by holding a vote on legislation that would authorize the use of military force.

 

HAGEL, KERRY GRILLED. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry were grilled by lawmakers in both parties Thursday as they defended President Obama’s strategy for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Republicans and Democrats questioned the administration’s strategy of using airstrikes against ISIS while training and arming Iraqi and Kurdish forces to fight the terrorist group on the ground.

Lawmakers wondered whether the plan could succeed without U.S. ground troops commanding forces, helping with logistics and intelligence or calling in airstrikes.

They also expressed worries that the Syrian rebels the Obama administration is counting on to fight ISIS will be focused on their battle against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

“How can we expect a few thousand rebels to fight against ISIL and Assad at the same time?” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), using another common acronym for the group, questioned Kerry.

Hagel and Kerry offered a defense of the administration’s strategy even as they acknowledged challenges.

Kerry said the administration recognizes rebels will continue to fight Assad.

“The Syria opposition is not going to stop fighting Assad. We recognize that reality,” he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Several lawmakers attacked Obama’s statement from August that it was a fantasy to think Syrian rebel groups could defeat ISIS.

“Just five weeks ago the president said it was a fantasy that the Free Syrian Army could take up arms and lead the fight,” Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) told Kerry. “Now they're a cornerstone of our strategy to defeat ISIS. What has changed to make the Free Syrian Army now a credible partner where before the president considered them a punchline?” 

Both officials acknowledged there were risks to the plan, but insisted there are no better options. 

“We recognize this is difficult. We recognize there is no good option here,” Hagel said. 

 

UKRAINE PRESIDENT ASKS FOR LETHAL AID... Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko implored a joint session of Congress to give arms to Ukrainian soldiers.

He said Ukrainian troops are under-equipped against Russian forces and need U.S. support.

“It is American’s war too,” Poroshenko told lawmakers. “It is a war for the free world.”

The administration has hit Moscow with several rounds of economic sanctions and provided around $70 million in non-lethal military aid to Ukraine such as night-vision goggles, blankets and medical kits.

“They need more military equipment both lethal and non-lethal,” Poroshenko said in his speech. “One cannot win a war with blankets.

“I urge America to help us. I urge America to lead the way,” he added.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) dubbed Poroshenko’s address a “real rousing call to us to be supportive of their dreams” but said that ultimately the decision to provide weapons would be up to Obama.

“It’s a presidential decision. We can’t force it, we can only talk about it” and possibly adopt a resolution backing Kiev, he told The Hill.

 

...AND IS DENIED BY THE ADMINISTRATION. Despite Poroshenko’s impassioned plea to lawmakers, the Obama administration turned down his request for lethal aid to Ukraine’s military.

However, the Ukrainian leader struck an upbeat note when speaking to reporters after his meeting with the president.

"I cannot say more that I am satisfied,” he said, explaining that he asked Obama to increase cooperation on security and defense.

"I'm getting everything that is possible," Poroshenko said.

The White House did announce a new $53 million aid package for Ukraine, including $7 million for international relief organizations providing humanitarian aid to civilians impacted by the fighting between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists. Another $46 million will go to helping Ukraine’s military and border guards.

"We reaffirmed this assistance to Ukraine and we are providing additional assistance," Obama said during the Oval Office meeting with Poroshenko.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: 

—McGovern: 'When are we going to do our job?'

—Paul opposes combining Syria, spending votes

—Warren’s difficult Syria decision

—Bill would ensure contraceptive access for female servicemembers

—Nelson: Senate shouldn’t adjourn

 

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