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Obama Asks Congress For $500 Million To Train Syria Rebels

By Christi Parsons and Michael Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday asked Congress for the first time to approve direct U.S. military training for Syrian rebels, but he remains deeply ambivalent about intervening in a deadly conflict that has spilled over into neighboring Iraq, U.S. officials said.

Obama asked for $500 million to “train and equip” opposition fighters in Syria who will be vetted by the United States to ensure they have no ties to militant Islamists who now control wide swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

But two senior U.S. officials said that the program will not begin until basic questions are resolved, such as whether the Pentagon has legal authority to train Syrian rebels, what types of weapons, and other assistance they would receive and who would get the training. Those decisions could take months, the officials said.

“All that is yet to be worked out, assuming Congress passes it,” said one of the officials, who asked not to be identified while discussing internal deliberations.

The request for funds was a “place holder,” meant to signal to lawmakers that the administration is considering stepped-up involvement at a time of growing concern in the region and in Congress that the United States is staying on the sidelines while instability is spreading, the second official said.

If approved, the expenditure would be part of a regional stabilization initiative for which the administration is seeking $1.5 billion, and which would involve collaboration with Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.

The CIA already has been providing small-scale training to small numbers of Syrian rebels, but even if the training goes ahead, the Pentagon plan does not envision converting moderate rebel groups into a fighting force that is capable of winning back territory lost to the government of President Bashar Assad and to militant groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Rather, the training would be aimed at improving the U.S.-backed rebels’ ability to hang on to the territory they now hold, in hopes of eventually producing a negotiated settlement to the conflict, officials said.

The White House still believes that “there is no military solution to this crisis and that the United States should not put American troops into combat in Syria,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

The relatively modest funding request was greeted with skepticism by congressional advocates of a greater U.S. role in Syria. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said the money would be irrelevant if Obama does not outline a strategy that makes sense.

“Do they want to reverse the momentum on the battlefield or do they want the status quo?” McCain said. “There’s no strategy. They’re just coming over and asking for money.”

The United States has supported training in Jordan for Syrian forces and supplied nonlethal aid such as transportation, medical equipment, and night-vision goggles. The neighboring countries inundated by the tide of refugees have received American humanitarian assistance.

The promise of a flood of money from the United States may serve mainly as a vote of confidence, said one analyst.

“It’s up to the players in the region to make things happen,” said Gordon Adams, a foreign policy expert at the American University School of International Service and a former national security budget manager in the Clinton White House. “This is a symbolic emboldening of moderates in Syria. A lot of this is about reassurance.”

AFP Photo / Zein al-Rifai

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Official: More Transfers From Guantanamo Prison Not ‘Imminent’

By Christi Parsons and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is working on more transfers out of the Guantanamo Bay detention center in the wake of last week’s release of five Taliban fighters but said Wednesday it doesn’t have a timeline for progress.

One national security official said Wednesday that the administration is making headway on some “promising opportunities,” but that the process may take some time.

“While we continue to work toward closure, there are no imminent transfer announcements in the works,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

Last week’s transfer of Guantanamo detainees in exchange for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has kicked up a storm on Capitol Hill among lawmakers who think they should have known more details in the run-up to the transfer.

Some are suspicious that the move signals an opening of the doors on the controversial prison, which holds 149 people, including the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

President Barack Obama, who has sought unsuccessfully to shut the U.S. military prison in Cuba since he took office, hinted strongly last week that he still intends to move more detainees out as the Pentagon winds down its war in Afghanistan.

“By definition, if we in fact are ending a war, then there’s going to be a process in which some of those individuals are going to be released,” he said on NBC News.

After briefings with administration officials this week, some Republican lawmakers said they believe the White House intends to release more prisoners without seeking congressional consent, as they did to gain Bergdahl’s release from the Taliban.

“There’s some concern that this is a lead-up to letting them all go,” said Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) said she sharply disagrees with the administration’s contention that ending the war in Afghanistan would necessitate transferring all remaining detainees.

“Even with the wind-down of the war in Afghanistan, unless the authorization for use of military force is rescinded, we still have authority under that to hold them under law of war detention if we believe they still present a danger,” she said.

The release of the so-called Taliban 5 has given lawmakers most committed to keeping Guantanamo open, such as Ayotte, new ammunition in their fight.

A new defense authorization bill that passed the House last month maintains prohibitions on transferring most detainees from the detention facility. But the Senate Armed Services Committee has included a provision that would allow some to be transferred to U.S. soil for detention or trial, under strict circumstances.

Ayotte, a committee member who opposed that provision, said she had already intended to try and strip that language from the bill when the full Senate takes up the measure. But now she intends to go further. She hopes to restore an even higher standard for national security waivers the administration must provide before transferring high-risk detainees. Ayotte sponsored an amendment that was adopted in committee to suspend transfers to Yemen.

Hayden said the White House is “making progress on a number of additional promising opportunities” to transfer more detainees and is reviewing Yemeni detainees “on a case-by-case basis.”

AFP Photo/Chantal Valery

Obama, Lampooning GOP, Calls For Hike In Minimum Wage

By Christi Parsons and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Wednesday that Republicans were “not necessarily coldhearted” in their policies but then devoted much of his speech at the University of Michigan to lampooning GOP opposition to his views on economic issues, including his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage.

As Congress gears up for a debate on his proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, Obama said lawmakers would have to decide between sticking with him or sticking it to working Americans.

“They’ve got to make a clear choice — talk the talk about valuing hard work and families, or walk the walk and actually value hard-working families,” Obama said. “You’ve got a choice. You can give America the shaft, or you can give it a raise.”

The address in Ann Arbor featured Obama in a feisty mood, a day after he announced that 7.1 million people had signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, exceeding the administration’s target.

Obama said that if Republicans tried to sell their economic plans at the deli where he had just ordered a Reuben, “they’d have to call it the Stinkburger or the Meanwich.” And he said opponents to a minimum-wage increase complain it will primarily help young people, which he suggested was not much different than yelling, “Get off my lawn!”

The edgy message opened a new phase for Obama. With the rollout of his 2010 health law nearly complete, the president is now focusing on the congressional elections and on keeping the Senate in Democratic hands, a task his advisers think depends in part on his ability to draw a sharp contrast with the GOP’s economic proposals.

For starters, Obama is leading off with the fight to raise the $7.25 minimum wage, an idea that polls have shown is favored by a strong majority of Americans.

But even as Obama used the minimum wage to highlight a difference with Republicans, Democrats on Capitol Hill are preparing for the politics of the issue to grow more complicated.

Democrats concede that they are unlikely to get enough support from Republicans to overcome a 60-vote procedural hurdle to advance the measure. But there is also some concern that an effort by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), to support a smaller increase — perhaps to $9 an hour — could siphon off some Democratic support. Collins is the only Republican senator running for re-election this year in a state that Obama won in 2012.

A Collins aide said the senator has had discussions over the last three weeks with a number of Democrats about packaging a wage increase with other economic measures, including tax credits for small businesses.

Senate Democratic leaders say they are committed to passing the president’s $10.10 proposal. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the number three Democrat in the Senate, argued Wednesday that other Republicans had made it clear they would not support a minimum-wage measure no matter what the increase might be.

“We’re sticking with $10.10,” Schumer said. “We’re not negotiating against ourselves.”

But Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the number two Democrat, raised the possibility of a compromise, although he also predicted that Democrats would “hold our votes” to open debate on an increase to the $10.10 level.

“Let me be honest about this,” he said. “If we reach a level where we don’t have the votes to pass it, then we have to be open for conversation about what it might look like in the future.”

It took months of work to advance an extension of unemployment insurance benefits, a measure that could finally pass the Senate on Thursday. The plan attracted enough Republican votes to end a filibuster Wednesday.

“How many times did we come at that before we finally reached a bipartisan agreement?” Durbin said.

In the Republican-controlled House, an aide to Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH), took issue with a minimum-wage increase, noting reports from economists who say that the president’s proposal would lead to job losses.

“The president’s plan would increase costs for consumers and eliminate jobs for those who need them the most,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. “The House is going to continue focusing on our plan to protect workers’ hours and create jobs, not the president’s plan to destroy them.”

In Michigan, where the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin has fueled GOP hopes of picking up a Democratic seat, Obama delivered a sharp-edged critique that fused Republican policy with Republican personality.

The new House Republican budget plan is a replay of the party’s 2012 campaign themes, the president said, “like that movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ except it’s not funny.”

Photo: pbarcas via Flickr

In Michigan, Obama Assails Republican Economic Policies As ‘Mean’

By Christi Parsons and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Republicans are “not necessarily cold-hearted” in their economic policies but spent much of his speech Wednesday to college students lampooning them for opposing his views.

The new House Republican budget plan is a replay of 2012 campaign themes, he said, “like that movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ except it’s not funny.”

If Republican policies were a sandwich, Obama went on, it’d be the “meanwich.” He later compared opponents to raising the federal minimum wage to people who yell at kids, “Get off my lawn!”

“They’re not necessarily cold-hearted,” Obama said, “they just sincerely believe that if we give more tax breaks to a fortunate few and we invest less in the middle class … then somehow the economy will boom, and jobs and prosperity will trickle down to everybody.”

The edgy speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor showed Obama in campaign mode, focused on 2014 congressional elections and on keeping the Senate in Democratic hands. The retirement of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., this year offers Republicans an opportunity to pick up a Democratic seat.

A day after announcing that more than 7.1 million people had signed up for health care during the first enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, Obama was out to publicize that victory. He gleefully referred to his health care reform plan as “Obamacare,” the term coined by Republican opponents.

But the White House is mindful that many voters are still suspicious of Obamacare, and so the references to it were minimal and framed as part of a bigger Democratic plan for the economy. Rolling out his campaign-focused speech Wednesday, Obama pressed harder on the idea of raising the minimum wage, which is favored by three of four Americans.

Republicans were prepared with their response. They point to analysis by economists who say the president’s plan to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.25 would kill jobs.

“The president’s plan would increase costs for consumers and eliminate jobs for those who need them most,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. The House will keep working on its own plan to “protect workers’ hours and create jobs, not the president’s plan to destroy them,” he said.

AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm