By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Moving quickly on the heels of the House of Representatives, the Senate grudgingly approved a measure Thursday that gives President Barack Obama the authority to train and arm Syrian rebels to combat the Islamic State and provides funding to keep the federal government open through mid-December.
Like their House counterparts, several senators questioned the viability of Obama’s strategy. They also complained that with the short-term budget bill, lawmakers were once again kicking serious budgetary questions down the legislative calendar.
But with the Islamic State’s threat rising and control of the Senate up for grabs, senators swallowed their concerns and voted 78-22 for the overall budget bill before heading home to campaign in the final weeks before November’s elections. There was no separate vote on the training of Syrian rebels.
“It is not perfect, that’s for sure,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said of the bill. “But no legislation is.”
The narrowly crafted Syria language gives Obama the power to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels against the Islamic State. The authorization expires in mid-December, dovetailing with the budget bill’s expiration date.
Administration officials must report to Congress on the progress of the strategy and how it fits into a larger plan to combat the Islamic State. The measure contains language that prevents Obama from expanding the training strategy into a battle that involves U.S. troops without congressional approval.
The provision doesn’t include any of the $500 million Obama has requested, though it allows the Pentagon to submit requests to Congress to redirect money and allows the State Department to accept foreign contributions.
Obama called it a victory nonetheless.
“The House and the Senate have now voted to support a key element of our strategy,” he said Thursday evening. “The strong bipartisan support in Congress for this new training effort shows the world that Americans are united in confronting the threat from (the Islamic State), which has slaughtered so many innocent civilians.”
The overall budget bill will continue to fund federal government programs and services at its current rate of $1.012 trillion until Dec. 11 and extends the life of the federal Export-Import Bank, which was set to expire Sept. 30, through June 2015.
But many lawmakers were unhappy that Congress is leaving until Nov. 12 after taking five weeks off this summer and then returning for eight days.
Congress’ long recesses and short list of legislative accomplishments are some of the reasons Capitol Hill lawmakers have a scant 14 percent approval rating, according to Barrett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor.
“Who had expectations that this Congress would do any better than this?” Loomis said. “They want to be on record as doing something, but they want to leave as few fingerprints as possible. These are far from profiles in courage here.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was blunt Thursday on why the House and Senate decided to do a short-term budget bill.
“We’re in the closing hours before the Senate takes a recess for the fall elections,” Mikulski said. “We want to make sure that we could provide funding and make sure that the government will not be shut down and that after the election we can return and do due diligence and pass this in a more comprehensive way.”
The bill had the rare bipartisan blessings of Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Still, many senators weren’t pleased with the choices — or lack thereof — that they faced Thursday.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said senators are more afraid of the American voter than the Islamic State. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said, “I don’t think we should adjourn and go home with matters of war and peace in front of us.”
“And here, the Congress of the United States is going to adjourn in the middle of September?” Nelson said on the Senate floor. “And, as I calculate, starting tomorrow, it’s 55 days until we would return? We need to be talking about war and peace. We need to be talking about the Congress exercising its constitutional authority to give the authority to the president for this long-term engagement.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) said the U.S. government is “on autopilot or, alternatively, government without an engine,” for passing a budget bill in election-year haste without scrutinizing the effectiveness of some of the departments and programs it funds.
“This kind of all-or-nothing proposition is dysfunctional, antidemocratic, and it prevents Congress from doing its job, which I remind my colleagues, is to represent the American people and be faithful stewards of their money,” he said.
Photo: Diliff via Wikimedia Commons