Senate approves Obama request to arm, train Syrian rebels

Greg Nash

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

Lawmakers voted 78-22 in favor of the bill, with 9 Democrats and 12 Republicans voting “no,” along with one independent.

The “no” votes included several senators seen as prospective presidential candidates in both parties, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

The legislation, which has now been approved by both chambers of Congress, now heads to the White House for Obama’s signature.

{mosads}While the stopgap bill will prevent a government shutdown on Oct. 1, the vote will be remembered for a controversial provision that allows Obama to start a new training program for rebel fighters in Syria.

Anti-war liberals and some conservatives balked at that request, with some fearing the vote represented a dangerous march to war. The House approved adding the Syria provision to the stopgap bill Wednesday in a 273-156 vote, with more than 80 Democrats breaking with the president to reject his request.

Lawmakers skeptical of helping the rebels are fearful that it could be difficult, if not impossible, for the administration to ensure the weapons do not end up in the wrong hands.

Several lawmakers also opposed lumping the Syria authority together with the funding bill.

“This issue with what’s going on in Syria should be a separate issue, should be debated separately,’” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who is facing a tough reelection race. “I do not support the arming of rebels in Syria.”

Paul agreed that the provision should have been given a standalone vote.

“I think it’s inexcusable that the debate of whether we get involved in another country’s civil war — that we would vote on this in a spending bill,” said the Kentucky senator, a possible GOP White House contender in 2016.

But one of Paul’s potential rivals, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), argued in favor of voting for the measure despite his criticism of the White House’s strategy for fighting ISIS.

“What happens in Syria is in our national interests,” Rubio said. “If we fail to approve this, the nations of that region will say America is not truly engaged.
“I will support this resolution because I think it is in the best interest of our nation.” 
Some Democratic lawmakers backing the measure made the point that this vote was very different from the congressional action more than a decade ago that authorized the Iraq War.
The shadow of that war has hung over the debate, with some Democrats worried the nation could be dragged into a third ground war in Iraq over the last quarter-century.

“I voted against the Iraq authorization in 2002,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “I’m voting for this train-and-equip authorization today and the difference are huge between the two.”

The Senate vote likely marks the end of the fall work period for Congress, with lawmakers now dispersing across the country to campaign for reelection.

Leaders in the House and Senate said they might return to ISIS after the election by holding a vote on legislation that would authorize the use of military force.

The ISIS provision approved Thursday was tailored specifically to aiding and training Syrian rebels, and did not address the broader question of Obama’s authority to take on the radical group through airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

The spending bill includes $88 million in additional funding to combat the Ebola epidemic, $64 million for the Department of Veterans Affairs and $6 million for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which helps low-income people obtain nutritious food.

“Overall it’s a relatively clean bill,” Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said. “It contains a minimal amount of what we call anomalies.”

The bill extends the charter for the Export-Import Bank, which aids U.S. exports, through June 30, 2015.

Democrats said they were disappointed that the bank was not renewed for a longer period of time, though the extension was a concession from conservatives in the House who had pushed to disband the agency altogether.

“I am very distressed with the fact that the House is sending us a simple nine-month extension of the Export-Import Bank,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said. “Make no mistake about it, this will cost us jobs in the United States of America.”

The funding legislation fulfills the guidelines of the budget agreement reached by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) last December.

Lawmakers resorted to a short-term spending bill after both chambers failed to pass all 12 individual appropriations measures. The House has passed seven fiscal 2015 appropriations bills under an open amendment process, but the Senate has not passed any.

“It’s not perfect, that’s for sure,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said of the spending bill. “But the funding resolution before us is infinitely better than the alternatives, another government shutdown.”

Once lawmakers return for the lame-duck session, appropriators are aiming to combine all 12 bills into an omnibus-spending package.  

Tags Harry Reid ISIS Syria

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