The House on Wednesday approved President Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State militants, giving the administration a much-needed endorsement of its strategy to defeat the extremist group.
But though the Senate was expected to give its approval Thursday, deep personal and political misgivings of lawmakers in both parties exposed more doubt than resolve over the president’s approach.
Republicans and Democrats alike are skeptical that the proposal to train and arm Syrian opposition forces will work. Training will take months, and the fighters’ battlefield abilities and trustworthiness remain untested.
Some Republican hawks wanted bolder action, but many lawmakers, particularly antiwar Democrats, fear that the administration is moving toward another protracted Mideast war that could ultimately require American ground troops.
Obama reiterated Wednesday that U.S. combat forces would not be deployed, a day after his top military advisor told a Senate panel that ground troops could be necessary in certain circumstances.
Despite the 273-156 House vote by an unusually bipartisan mix of lawmakers, passage came only after several days of heated debate on Capitol Hill. A rare unity emerged from top leaders in both parties who closed ranks to back the president’s strategy, even as they acknowledged it was the best among imperfect options for a war-weary country.
“It is not pleasant. It is not easy. It’s hard,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “But it really is necessary for the House to approve this.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) expressed frustration with the president’s approach, but said that “we must support this amendment and take this first step towards a comprehensive strategy to combat these brutal terrorists.” Though the House speaker rarely votes, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) backed the president and voted in favor.
The White House welcomed Wednesday’s vote. “Today’s vote is another step closer to having the authorization to train and equip vetted elements of the moderate Syrian opposition so they can defend themselves against, and ultimately push back on, ISIL forces in Syria, while creating the conditions for the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all,” Obama said in a statement, referring to Islamic State by a commonly used acronym. He urged the Senate to pass the bill as well.
The resolution authorizes the arming of moderate Syrian forces who oppose President Bashar Assad and does not approve Obama’s broader strategy of using airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State, an Al Qaeda offshoot that has seized large swaths of territory in the two countries and has beheaded three Westerners.
Obama has maintained he doesn’t need further authorization from Congress to bomb Islamic State forces, but he said he wanted a congressional “buy-in” for his strategy to send a message of unity to allies and enemies abroad.
The White House bet that the narrowly crafted resolution on arming Syrian rebels would be easier to pass for lawmakers reluctant to vote on such a sensitive issue during an election campaign.
But passage proved much more difficult than anticipated, spurring a last-minute flurry of White House lobbying and pressure. Both parties held extensive closed-door sessions on Capitol Hill as administration officials presented its case, with the president personally calling some leaders.
Because many current lawmakers joined Congress in the post-Sept. 11 era, Wednesday’s vote marked the first time some had ever acted to authorize military operations. Many wrestled with the decision.
“There are a lot of people struggling with this vote right now,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with my colleagues who have questions and reservations.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who voted for the resolution, said he and other Republicans nevertheless had doubts about Obama’s abilities as a war leader.
“So that makes it — even if you think you should be doing something — like going into a football game with a quarterback you’re not very sure of.... A lot of members are afraid they’ll put their fingerprints on a decision and then live to regret it down the road because the execution will be poor,” Cole said.
The White House initially requested $500 million for the training program, but the funding was left out of the resolution. Money will be initially available from the Pentagon’s existing accounts.
House Republicans bolstered the resolution to require 15-day advance notice to Congress before any training begins, and follow-up reports every 90 days.
The resolution was attached to a must-pass spending bill that is required to fund the government and avert another shutdown by the end of the month. The spending package also cleared the House on Wednesday by a vote of 319 to 108, including a provision to temporarily renew the authorization for the Export-Import Bank, which some lawmakers have tried to shut down.
Linking the Syria resolution to the funding bill made it more difficult for lawmakers to refuse, but the tactic drew scorn from those who saw it as political gamesmanship on a vote that many see as one of conscience.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) denounced the parliamentary move, and tea party conservative Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who voted against both measures in the House, called it “immoral” to use a budget bill to pressure members to support the military action.
Congress had initially been reluctant to vote on any authorization of the administration’s military strategy. But when polls showed public opinion supportive of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, lawmakers embraced a more active role.
Both the stopgap spending bill and the authority to arm Syrian rebels are effective only until December, all but guaranteeing another debate on Syria in the postelection lame-duck session of Congress.
Lawmakers from both parties vowed to return from the November election to force a debate — and vote — on whether the president should be able to engage in broader military action.
Though the administration maintains that the U.S. is conducting airstrikes under War Powers Resolution authority granted by Congress in 2001 and 2002, lawmakers increasingly argue that those resolutions do not cover this effort.
“What in the world are we doing?” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who voted against the resolution. “Congress should be examining all of the solutions to this crisis, not just the military ones.”