Obama’s Request To Arm Syrians Faces Skepticism Before Congress Votes

Obama’s Request To Arm Syrians Faces Skepticism Before Congress Votes

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s request for Congress to authorize the training and equipping of Syrian rebels seemed a modest piece of the administration’s new offensive against Islamic State militants.

But it has proved to be anything but easy as skeptical lawmakers appear to have more questions than resolve to approve it.

A hoped-for Tuesday vote in the House has been pushed to later in the week as leaders struggled over the weekend to draft a resolution that could win support from a broad, bipartisan swath of lawmakers. It was expected to be released Monday.

Many members of Congress, though, now want to engage not only on the narrow request to arm the Syrian rebels but also the broader administrative strategy against the militants, also known as ISIS.

On Monday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced a measure that would authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for the next 18 months — a larger question than the one the administration has asked of Congress and one that would likely be more difficult to pass Congress.

The president has claimed the authority for directing the Pentagon’s campaign of airstrikes against the militants under the broad powers granted by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and in the 2002 run-up to the war in Iraq.

But lawmakers increasingly argue those decade-old authorizations must be revisited by Congress, which until recently had been content to sit on the sidelines as the administration led the offensive.

Schiff, who has long pushed for a new vote, was introducing his measure “so that the president and our Armed Forces may know that the Congress stands behind them — and that we too have done our duty,” he said.

Other measures are being drafted by key Democrats in the Senate.

That conversation could be a long one. In this Congress, the deep partisan divide that has characterized Capitol Hill further splinters between its interventionist and isolationist camps.

Leaders of both parties, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) delivered a rare display of unity last week in support of Obama’s request for at least arming the Syrians.

Boehner noted that with reluctance to put American troops on the ground, somebody has to go in to fight the militants.

And they downplayed the need for more action from Congress.

“Hopefully, we don’t have to go beyond what the president is doing now,” Pelosi said.

By midday Monday, Republican leaders were poised to release the resolution on arming the Syrian rebels, with a vote expected as soon as Wednesday.

House Republicans wanted to build on the administration’s request and, at minimum, tuck in language to provide greater congressional oversight of the operation.

The oversight was “one key thing that was missing” from the administration request, said a senior House Armed Services Committee aide.

The House resolution will include a plan for vetting the rebels that must be submitted to Congress no less than 15 days before any training begins or equipment is transferred.

“We’re not asking for something that makes this mission impossible,” said the aide.

But Republican leaders must juggle the desire of their lawmakers to beef up the administration’s request with the need to maintain a coalition with moderate Democrats to pass the measure.

A contingent of tea party Republicans and anti-war Democrats will likely oppose any military effort.

“There can’t be 535 commanders in chief,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) a former Air Force pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan, warned his colleagues during a closed door meeting last week.

Democrats have their own concerns with actions that many liberals worry resembles the war in Iraq they opposed.

“The president’s critics are demanding that he come up with a detailed plan that would guarantee the total and complete destruction of ISIS,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). “(They) ought to be willing to discuss what casualties they’re willing to accept, because we’re talking substantial casualties to achieve that goal.”

The debate is complicated this week by the need for Congress to also approve a measure to fund the government past Sept. 30 to avoid a federal shutdown.

With just one week at work before Congress is set to recess for the fall campaigns, the days ahead are expected to be long ones for lawmakers.

Tribune Washington Bureau staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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