Congress could vote next week to help Syrian rebels

House Speaker John Boehner, Sept. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Speaker John Boehner, Sept. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP

Congress was largely receptive Thursday to President Barack Obama’s plan to attack the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but lawmakers are divided on the details, and it’s not clear how quickly they will act on his push to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels.

Obama did get backing from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who are critical for Obama as he seeks congressional authorization to provide military training for moderate opposition forces in Syria.

“At this point in time it’s important that we give the president what he’s asking for,” Boehner said. ”The issue here is about defeating a terrorist threat that is real and imminent.”

Boehner told reporters that, while he’ll support the president’s plan, there is still skepticism among his fellow Republicans.

“A lot of our members don’t feel like the campaign that was outlined last night will accomplish the mission that the president says, and that is to destroy ISIS,” he said.

Obama announced he’d expand airstrikes in Iraq and into Syria, train local partners to take the fight to the militants on the ground and work with U.S. allies and countries in the region to fight the group.

Boehner said he isn’t sure whether Obama is doing enough, but he stopped short of calling for U.S. combat troops to be deployed. Obama, who campaigned against the war in Iraq, on Wednesday pledged not to send combat troops into the region.

House leaders said there could be a vote as soon as Tuesday on Obama’s $500 million request to authorize training and arming of Syrian rebels.

Boehner said discussions over how to handle the request are just beginning and will continue over the weekend. The request could be tucked into a funding bill to avert a government shutdown, which the White House would prefer.

Obama needs the authority “as soon as possible” to direct the military to ramp up assistance to the Syrian opposition, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

He noted that Saudi Arabia has offered to host a training operation and said the administration hopes “we can follow up quickly on that commitment by doing our own part.”

Earnest said the Department of Defense training authority has been not “attracted significant controversy in the past,” but added he expected Congress to ask questions about it.

The Senate is waiting for the House to act first on the proposal to arm moderate rebels. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he expects the Senate to pass the request by the end of next week.

Neither House nor Senate leaders, though, are eager to vote on a broader authorization for the president’s open-ended campaign against the Islamic State just weeks before the midterm election.

Obama said he believes he does not need congressional authorization to wage a campaign against the militant group but would welcome it as a show of support.

Reid, asked if there would be such a vote on the broader Islamic State campaign, responded that the Senate shouldn’t be “rash.”

He added, “We have to be very calm and deliberate.”

But others, including Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., argued the Constitution demands that Obama get congressional approval for his campaign.

“If we choose to avoid debate, avoid accountability, avoid a hard decision, how can we demand that our military willingly sacrifice their very lives?” Kaine said in a speech on the Senate floor.

While there’s debate over the need for authorization, most members of Congress appeared generally supportive of Obama’s plans to attack the Islamic State. “Congress will work with the administration to ensure that our forces have the resources they need to carry out these missions,” McConnell said.

Warning of an “indefinite campaign,” McConnell said Congress should also look at what a sustained push against the Islamic State will mean for defense spending.

Some lawmakers, though, said they oppose Obama’s proposal to give U.S arms to the Syrian rebels.

“I am gravely concerned by reports of ISIS seizing and utilizing U.S. weapons intended for those fighting against the Syrian regime, and we must have greater assurance that we aren’t arming extremists who will eventually use the weapons against us,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who is in the midst of a difficult re-election fight.

Liberal groups, too, were critical of engaging further without congressional debate.

“Congress and the American people must have a full, vigorous and open debate before the U.S. embarks upon another war in the Middle East,” said Anna Galland, executive director of Civic Action.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., who plans to have Secretary of State John Kerry testify Thursday before the committee, called Obama’s speech a “start.”

But, he added, “it remains to be seen whether the administration, after much delay and denial, develops and executes the sustained commitment needed to destroy ISIS by building a powerful coalition against these brutal jihadists.”