By Heidi Przybyla, James Rowley and Erik Wasson
U.S. House leaders of both parties said they expect to pass a measure granting President Barack Obama’s request to arm and equip Syrian rebels.
“The president asked us to authorize the training of the Free Syrian Army,” House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, told reporters today in Washington. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
The House will begin debate today on the measure offered yesterday as an amendment to a must-pass bill to fund the U.S. government through Dec. 11. Separate votes on the amendment and the bill, H.J.Res. 124, are planned tomorrow.
Second-ranking House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland said today he expects the Syria amendment will be adopted, with divided votes among Republicans and Democrats.
“It will have votes on both sides of the question in both parties,” Hoyer of Maryland told reporters.
Lawmakers in both parties had sought a separate vote on the Syria rebel aid. Some Republicans who want a more robust response to Islamic terrorism demanded a vote to send a message to allies and terrorist groups. Senate Democrats who worry the arms could fall into terrorists’ hands and that the U.S. may be drawn into a broader war want a chance to vote against it.
Congressional leaders say they want to pass the measure this week so members can return home to campaign for November’s election. The spending legislation will include a nine-month reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, whose charter ends Sept. 30, the same day government funding is set to lapse.
Hoyer said Democrats will accept the nine-month Ex-Im extension. Democrats had sought to reauthorize the bank for a matter of years, and Hoyer said Sept. 12 that the nine-month measure was a Republican step to “eventually kill” the Ex-Im Bank altogether.
Obama, in a Sept. 10 televised address, asked Congress to authorize help for Syrian rebels combating the Sunni extremist group Islamic State, which has swept from Syria deep into Iraq with a campaign of terror that included the beheading of two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker. No U.S. ground troops will be needed, the president said.
Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House Republicans’ chief vote-counter, is backing the president’s approach. “He’s asked for a specific request,” Scalise said. “I will be voting for that.”
Democratic Representative Ron Kind of Wisconsin called Obama’s proposal “probably the best of the bad options that we have.”
Kind said he worries about “mission creep,” a sentiment also expressed by Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern, who said he was concerned that without further authorization by Congress “we can be up to our eyeballs in this war.”
Hoyer said comments like these reflect a “worry” among Democrats that “we will go down a path as we went on in Iraq,” and become “players on the ground.” He predicted more debate after the Nov. 4 congressional election because “further action by Congress is going to be necessary.”
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey told a Senate committee today he would back U.S. advisers to accompany Iraqi troops in battle to combat Islamic State if necessary. Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that Iraqi security forces are “doing fine” and don’t need help in the field from U.S. advisers.
Dempsey also said U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria won’t be a repeat of the 2003 Iraq War’s opening attacks, dubbed “shock and awe,” because “that is not how” Islamic State is organized.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the panel that the plan includes “targeted actions” against Islamic State positions, including “command and control, logistics capabilities and infrastructure.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters yesterday that Obama and administration officials have been discussing the proposal with lawmakers who have questions about it.
House Republican Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a deputy whip, said today, “The White House is going to need to make the case.” McHenry added, “He is going to have to bring members of his party along on the plan as well.”
Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat who opposed the war in Iraq, said today that reporting requirements House Republicans added to the Syria provision are “steps in the right direction.”
“I do think that it shows that Congress is demanding involvement,” Baldwin said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast.
The House measure would require the Defense Department and State Department to report to Congress 15 days before putting its proposal into effect and demonstrate how it would work.
Every 90 days afterward, the Defense Department would have to provide information on vetting of Syrian rebels who receive help, in an effort to ensure that U.S. equipment doesn’t fall into terrorists’ hands.
The authority to equip and train Syrian rebels would continue until the Dec. 11 expiration of the government spending bill. Funds for equipping and training the Syrian rebels would come from Defense Department money contained in the spending measure.
The amendment states that it doesn’t broadly authorize “the introduction of United States armed forces into hostilities,” a limit sought by lawmakers of both parties. Congress may consider such an authorization after the November election.
Senate leaders didn’t say whether they would arrange for a separate vote to be held on the Syria language in that chamber.
Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich, running for re-election this year, has said he opposes Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels because he is “gravely concerned” that terrorists could seize the weapons.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said he probably won’t support the spending bill because of his concerns about arming and training Syrian rebels.
“But anything that makes clearer how you are going to keep our support away from Sunni extremist groups would get me closer to a yes” vote, Murphy told reporters.
Republicans are trying to pass a spending bill quickly to avoid a repeat of last October’s 16-day partial government shutdown caused by a Republican effort to defund Obama’s health-care law. Public approval of Republicans plunged in polls after the shutdown.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at [email protected]