With strings attached, House approves Obama plan for Syrian rebels

A divided House of Representatives gave tentative approval Wednesday to President Barack Obama’s plan to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels to combat the Islamic State, as members of both parties expressed concerns about the plans and insisted he come back in December to ask again.

After days of fence-sitting among some lawmakers and arm-twisting by Obama and his allies, the House voted 273-156 on the president’s Syria authorization, as it was added to a temporary budget bill to keep the federal government funded beyond Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. It is expected to pass the Senate on Thursday.

While approval was predicted, the support and opposition in the House defied traditional party lines, with 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats supporting it and 71 Republicans and 85 Democrats voting against it.

“This measure represents an important, initial step forward in taking on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after the vote, using one of the terms for the Islamic State. “ISIL represents a direct threat to the safety and security of the United States, and House Republicans are firmly committed to doing everything we can to help keep America safe.”

The measure, drafted by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., came with limits.

The authorization would expire in mid-December, the same sunset date for the rest of the budget bill. Administration officials must report to Congress on the progress of the strategy and how it fits into a larger plan to defeat the Islamic State.

The amendment includes language that prohibits Obama from expanding his strategy into a full-scale military operation involving U.S. troops without congressional approval.

And it did not include any of the $500 million Obama has requested, though it would allow the Pentagon to submit requests to Congress redirecting money and would allow the State Department to accept foreign contributions.

As the House debated the measure, Obama repeated his promise not to send any U.S. troops into ground combat.

“The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission,” Obama said at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, home of the U.S. Central Command. “I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”

Obama on Wednesday evening welcomed the House vote and stressed that there would be no training inside Syria.

“Today’s vote is another step closer to having the authorization to train and equip vetted elements of the moderate Syrian opposition,” he said in a statement. “This training program will be conducted outside of Syria, in partnership with regional countries. There will be no U.S. military personnel in Syria as part of this program.”

Republican and Democratic leadership in the House and Senate presented a rare unified front in backing Obama’s authorization request, calling it a first step in fighting a deadly enemy that must be defeated.

“I know many of us on both sides of the aisle believe that the president’s strategy should do more to eradicate these extremists from the face of the Earth,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

“Despite those reservations, reservations that I share, we must support this amendment and take this first step toward a comprehensive strategy to combat these brutal terrorists,” he said. “Voting against this request would send a terrible message that America is unwilling to stand with those who are already fighting a common enemy and confirm the views of many in the region that America is but a paper tiger.”

But the leadership’s approval, and the language in the amendment restricting U.S. boots on the ground, weren’t enough to overcome skepticism among many lawmakers. Instead, the amendment produced a true bipartisan coalition of strange political bedfellows.

War-weary liberals who fear that training and arming Syrian rebels will lead to “mission creep” and another long-term U.S. engagement in the Middle East joined hawkish lawmakers who believe Obama’s strategy is too soft in voting against the amendment.

“What this amendment does is train Islamists to fight other Islamists,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. “I will not vote for something I know will not work. Arming Islamists to fight other Islamists is not a winning strategy. . . . We’ve been through this before in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the Islamic State “cannot project military power beyond the Middle East” and the United States might be best served by bolstering “the defenses of our allies such as Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.”

He added that the threat of American and European terrorists coming here “cannot be fought by military means in Iraq and Syria, but by counterintelligence, appropriate surveillance, and border control here and abroad.”

McKeon’s amendment overshadowed the budget bill itself, which would continue funding federal government programs and services at its current rate of $1.012 trillion until Dec. 11.

With lawmakers anxious to return to their districts to campaign before November’s midterm elections and not eager to repeat last October’s 16-day partial government shutdown, there was little controversy or debate surrounding the so-called continuing resolution.

Despite complaints by conservative Republicans over a provision reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, which expires Sept. 30, the House easily approved the budget resolution by a 319-108 vote.