Senate panel delivers bipartisan rebuke to Obama with vote to arm Syrian rebels

A bill to arm the Syrian opposition cleared its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday, easily passing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 15 to 3.

The lopsided vote is a bipartisan rebuke for President Obama, whose administration has consistently raised concerns that such weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militants. Lawmakers, however, say the ongoing violence in Syria – more than 70,000 people have been killed in the 26-month-old civil war – and fears that Islamists are gaining the upper hand among the rebel groups supersede those concerns.

“The time to act and turn the tide against Assad is now,” said the panel’s Chairman Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Graham blocks resolution recognizing Armenian genocide after Erdoğan meeting Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden MORE (D-N.J.). “Let’s be clear about the choices we face. The choice here is not between arming and not arming. The choice is between the United States stepping in and trying to do this in a responsible fashion or leaving it to others who will simply arm the extremists.”

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Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBudowsky: Trump destroying GOP in 2018, '19, '20 Conservative group cuts ties with Michelle Malkin Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters MORE (R-Ariz.), who has long led the charge for a more forceful U.S. response, said the bill “sends a signal to the administration and maybe to the people of Syria … that they have a certain amount of support from the Senate and I hope soon from the Congress of the United States.”

And Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerHillicon Valley: Ocasio-Cortez clashes with former Dem senator over gig worker bill | Software engineer indicted over Capital One breach | Lawmakers push Amazon to remove unsafe products Ocasio-Cortez blasts former Dem senator for helping Lyft fight gig worker bill Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Calif.) said the bill would put the “wind” at the administration’s back should it decide to act on the legislative authorization.

Democratic Sens. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallBureau of Land Management staff face relocation or resignation as agency moves west Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Hillicon Valley: Twitter to refuse all political ads | Trump camp blasts 'very dumb' decision | Ocasio-Cortez hails move | Zuckerberg doubles down on Facebook's ad policies | GOP senator blocks sweeping election reform bill MORE (N.M.) and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens Lawmakers spar over upcoming Sondland testimony Johnson: Whistleblower 'exposed things that didn't need to be exposed' MORE (Conn.) joined Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate scraps plan to force second stopgap vote ahead of shutdown On The Money: Senate scraps plan to force second shutdown vote | Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny | McConnell rips House Dems for holding up trade deal Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters MORE in opposing the bill, raising the same kinds of concerns as the White House.

“We’re providing arms, I think, into a very chaotic situation,” said Udall, calling for a hearing with regional experts and the administration ahead of taking such action. The then-secretaries of State and Defense joined the CIA director and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last summer to urge such action, but were voted down by the White House.

“I know everyone here wants to do the right thing,” said Paul, “but I think it’s a rush to war.”

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Paul repeatedly argued that the bill’s proponents are voting to arm allies of al Qaeda, which is fighting to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Senators voice support for Iran protesters but stop short of taking action McConnell urges Trump to voice support for Hong Kong protesters MORE (R-Fla.) countered that not voting for the bill ensures that al Qaeda and the Assad regime are the only groups adequately armed.

The bill’s defenders said it does not authorize the use of force or put U.S. boots on the ground. Menendez and Boxer pointed out that they voted against the use of force in Iraq a decade ago.

Menendez introduced the bill earlier this month, along with ranking member Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerRNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Tenn.). The chairman also worked with Rubio and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyNew ObamaCare enrollment period faces Trump headwinds Scrap House defense authorization provision benefitting Russia Here are the Senate Democrats backing a Trump impeachment inquiry over Ukraine call MORE Jr. (D-Pa.) to incorporate elements of their legislation slapping more sanctions on Syria’s central bank.

The panel easily defeated an amendment from Udall to restrict U.S. aid to light weapons. McCain said Udall’s amendment would have the rebels using “shotguns against Scud missiles.”

The vote comes as Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Pompeo announces Israeli settlements do not violate international law Deval Patrick's 2020 entry raises stakes in New Hampshire MORE arrived in the Middle East on Tuesday to build support for a last-ditch effort to negotiate a peaceful end to the war. The U.S. and Russia are pushing for peace talks between the Assad government and rebels under the auspices of the United Nations next month in Geneva.

The lopsided vote creates pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid: Early voting states Iowa, New Hampshire 'not representative of the country anymore' The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Bottom Line MORE (D-Nev.) to schedule a vote on the bill, and for the House to take up similar legislation. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced such a bill in March.

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This story was posted at 3:35 p.m. and updated at 7:57 p.m.