House to vote Wednesday to train Syrian rebels - at least temporarily

The U.S. Capitol, April 5, 2014. (Tish Wells/McClatchy)
The U.S. Capitol, April 5, 2014. (Tish Wells/McClatchy) McClatchy

The House of Representatives is expected to approve a short-term measure Wednesday that would keep the federal government open after the fiscal year ends Sept. 30 and temporarily authorize the training and arming of Syrian rebels to battle the Islamic State.

The Senate is expected to follow soon after, perhaps as early as Thursday. A lame-duck Congress would return in December to reconsider both.

With November’s elections looming and the threat of the Islamic State growing, lawmakers anxious to return to their districts to campaign signaled a willingness to swallow their concerns and vote for the temporary budget bill, which would continue funding federal government programs and services at its current rate of $1.012 trillion until Dec. 11.

Democratic and Republican leaders in the House predicted victory for the bill, though not without some drama.

There’s bipartisan angst among rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans that runs across the hawk and dove camps. Some lawmakers Tuesday fretted that Obama’s strategy could be a prelude to another long-term U.S. engagement in the Middle East. Others wished they were voting on a more robust use of American military force, not just training and equipping a small proxy army.

In the Senate, leaders of both parties signaled approval and a return after the elections.

“The chances are pretty good this is the last week we’re here,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

He said the budget bill language authorizing the training of Syrian rebels would expire in December and would have to be extended with a new budget bill or a new authorization bill for the Pentagon.

“I support what the president is doing, I’d like to take another look at it a couple of months (from now) and see how it’s working out,” he said. “That would give the Congress an opportunity to revisit that issue later this year.”

The Syria resolution, authored by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., includes language that prevents Obama from expanding his strategy into a full-scale military operation involving U.S. troops without congressional approval.

“We’re on a short time frame. You give the commander in chief what he asks for and have a continuing dialogue,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “I’ve made this statement publicly and privately in some of our meetings (to) our military people, ‘You’re going to be back here asking for more authority and more money,’ let’s just recognize that.”

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama’s authorization request “is a sound one,” but he added, “We’ve got to do more than train a few folks in Syria and train a few folks in Iraq and dropping bombs.”

“The president asked us to authorize the training of the Free Syrian Army,” Boehner said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

He may have to do it without lawmakers such as Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.

“I’m not comfortable authorizing a little component without seeing the full picture,” Salmon said after leaving a House Republican meeting. “I would rather get the job done, and I don’t believe that this will get the job done.”

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., left the meeting predicting that 10 to 15 House Republicans would join him in voting against the Syrian amendment.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona said he leaned reluctantly toward supporting the Syrian authorization because “our history of us supporting other groups in that area has not been one in which we have come out the winner.”

Grijalva said he’s surprised by the number of House members from both parties who’ve told him that they’re leaning against voting for the authorization to train rebels. But he said the number isn’t enough to derail the amendment.

Squeamishness about arming Syrian rebels was also evident in the Senate, which will take up the authorization measure after the House.

“We’ll get it done, we’ll get it done,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “I don’t know how long it will take.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said the U.S. needs to learn from its experience in Iraq and not believe that it can determine the outcome of an internal conflict in the Middle East.

“The definition of insanity is thinking you can do the same thing over and over again and believe that it will have a different result,” he said.

But other senators, including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, said training and arming the Syrian rebels is key to beating the Islamic State.

“We’re never going to be able to dislodge ISIS without a ground component,” King said, using one of the acronyms for the extremist group. “And I don’t want it to be Americans.”

The Syria amendment and the desire of lawmakers to get out of Washington has blunted some of the contentious issues surrounding the budget bill. Conservative Republicans and Democrats were at odds, for example, over the reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, which expires Sept. 30.

Conservatives who regard the bank as “corporate welfare” wanted it killed, while Democrats were seeking a long-term reauthorization. Instead, the House is poised to pass a short-term plan that would extend the bank through June 2015.

“Ex-Im gives me some heartburn,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich. “People like Grover Norquist and a number of others have said this is not worth the heartburn for anybody. We know that we’re this close to an election and the American people are going to have to step up and figure out what direction are we going to go.”