SEPT. 18, 2014
Congress Gives Final Approval to Aid Rebels in Fight With ISIS
By JONATHAN WEISMAN and JEREMY W. PETERS
WASHINGTON -- The Senate gave overwhelming approval on Thursday to the training and arming of Syrian rebels, then fled the Capitol with the House for the fall campaign, sidestepping the debate over the extent of American military action until the lame-duck session of Congress later this year.
The training measure was pushed hard by President Obama, who will now sign it into law. It was tucked into a larger Senate bill to keep the government funded past Sept. 30, a maneuver that leaders of both parties favored to ensure as few defections as possible. The Senate's 78-to-22 vote, a day after the House passed the measure, masked the serious doubts that some senators had.
The broader debate over Congress's role in blessing or expanding a new military campaign in the Middle East was one that few on Capitol Hill wanted six weeks before the midterm elections. With memories of the 2002 vote to authorize force in Iraq still haunting Congress, members of both parties -- especially those with their eyes on the White House -- tried to find a position they would not regret.
"I'm not sending your son, your daughter, over to the middle of that chaos," said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, whose libertarian views have propelled him into contention for his party's 2016 nomination. "The people who live there need to stand up and fight."
After days of often-heated debate, lawmakers approved the ultimate punt for a Congress that has avoided difficult tasks for years. The new authorization to train the moderate Free Syrian Army expires Dec. 11.
In a statement from the White House after the Senate vote, Mr. Obama praised members of both parties. "We are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together," he said, calling it a "hallmark of American foreign policy at its best."
"These terrorists thought they could frighten us or intimidate us," Mr. Obama said. "Americans, we do not give in to fear."
Lawmakers are deeply divided about whether to simply extend the narrow training authorization or take up a broader authorization of military force against the Islamic State. Some senators are pressing to quickly add what is tantamount to a declaration of war to an annual defense policy bill still pending in the Senate. House leaders adamantly oppose that maneuver, and the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could begin drafting their own authorization of force as soon as next week.
"This is a big war," said Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has already drafted an authorization of force. "Any time you have a group that can reach 35,000 people, having doubled that in a matter of a month, just project that forward. It's a big deal." Mr. Inhofe was apparently referring to a C.I.A. assessment that there were 20,000 to 31,500 militants fighting for the Islamic State, an increase from a previous assessment of more than 10,000 fighters.
For the senators who are eyeing the White House, the consequences of a wrong vote on war are not abstract. Hillary Rodham Clinton's vote for the invasion of Iraq when she was a senator opened a lane for the 2008 candidacy of Barack Obama. When Mr. Obama was in the Senate, his antiwar views helped him shape a distinctive public persona. John Kerry's 2004 campaign for president was crippled by the accusation that he waffled on his vote for the Iraq invasion with his later criticism of it.
In their speeches on Thursday, senators like Mr. Paul and Marco Rubio of Florida, who voted for the measure and is another possible 2016 contender, were looking far beyond the vote. "Amid the interventionists' disjointed and frankly incoherent rhetoric," said Mr. Paul, "the only consistent theme is war. These barnacled enablers have never met a war they didn't like."
Mr. Rubio, a fiscal hawk who has always voted against short-term spending bills because he says they are the wrong way to fund the government, found himself squeezed between that principle and his position as the leader of the 2016 interventionist wing. "We are asked to decide things in this chamber that are in the best interest of our country," he said, "even if they did not work out the way we wanted them to." Democrats touted as possible presidential candidates who voted no included Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York.
The issue of military intervention in Syria is likely to resurface shortly after the midterms. Members of both parties are calling for a vote then on a use-of-force resolution that would have far broader implications than the one approved on Thursday.
Many liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans agree that the administration's justification for using force today -- the congressional authorization for using force granted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- is specious. "We are living on borrowed time and we are traveling on vapors," said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2-ranking Democrat, arguing on Thursday that the old authorization had long expired.
Neither Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, nor Representative Ed Royce of California, chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee, appeared ready to rush an authorization of force through their panels. If Republicans take control of the Senate in November, wounded Democrats will be in no mood to take on such a weighty issue, and triumphant Republicans will not want to bind the coming Republican Congress with a lame-duck resolution.
House members in both parties will oppose efforts to add a use-of-force authorization to the Senate defense bill, arguing they would be given no chance to amend it or debate it as an issue separate from the broader military policy measure.
Instead, Congress is likely to tuck an extension of the Syrian rebel training authority into the defense policy bill, said Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. If that cannot be completed, Congress might simply pass another stopgap spending bill that automatically carried the training resolution forward.
Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, has already drafted an authorization of force against the Islamic State that would replace the measures passed a dozen years ago. A new resolution "needs to be done now," Mr. Smith said. "We're bombing in Iraq. We've got plans for Syria obviously. Military force is being used, and if Congress wants to assert its authority over war powers, the sooner the better."
More immediately, the issue shadows Democratic senators fighting for their political lives ahead of the November elections. Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, one of the most endangered incumbent Democrats, explained his "no" vote from the Senate floor on Thursday. "Don't get me wrong, this is a bad organization and should be dealt with in such a way," he said, referring to the Islamic extremists in Syria as "terrorist thugs." But, Mr. Begich added, "We need the countries there to assist us in a much more aggressive way." Other endangered Democrats lined up on the opposite side. Among those who supported the measure were Senators Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Udall of Colorado.
There were moments that made it seem as if the Senate were debating something far more routine than military action. Only 15 senators spoke, and the chamber was often empty.