Training, equipping Syrian rebels approved by Senate
WASHINGTON — The Senate approved President Obama's plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels on Thursday, giving final congressional approval to the strategy and capping a brief debate that sets the stage for broader discussions after the midterm elections over how to counter the growing threat of the Islamic State terrorists.
Senators voted 78-22 to approve the strategy as part of a measure meant to keep the federal government operating through mid-December. Support was made from 45 Democrats and 33 Republicans, while 10 members of the Senate Democratic caucus and 12 Republicans voted against the bill.
The vote was not a pure reflection of support for Obama's plan. Some Republicans opposed it because the bill sets federal spending too high, but other Republicans and Democrats were opposed because of concerns about plans to vet potential Syrian rebel groups.
“My default is always to support this president on foreign policy, this is just one area where I'm in disagreement,” Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., said before the vote.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential presidential candidate, was opposed and used a combative floor speech to blast Obama and congressional colleagues for not holding a fuller war debate before the elections.
“The people in this body are petrified — not of ISIS — but of the American voter. They're afraid to come forward and vote on war now,” Paul said.
“I want to thank leaders of Congress for the speed and seriousness with which they approached this issue,” Obama said after the vote, noting that “a majority of Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate” had voted to train and equip the rebels. “We are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together.”
The House and Senate planned to adjourn on Thursday night, capping a brief two-week congressional session held primarily to ensure the federal government won't shut down when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Neither chamber is scheduled to reconvene until after Election Day.
Meanwhile, Democrats remain divided over the debate this fall on setting the terms of war against the Islamic State, despite the unified support of their leadership for Obama's initial request for training pro-Western rebels.
Rank-and-file Democrats in the House and Senate say they are looking forward to a broad war powers debate in the lame-duck session after the Nov. 4 midterm elections, echoing similar comments from most Republicans.
But Democratic leaders are divided over that issue, with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., among those counseling patience and, for now, a more narrow debate.
The scope of debate is important because many Democrats supporting the initial authorization request suggested their yes votes were based on the premise of holding a bigger debate on the parameters of war later this year.
Some Democrats opposed to deeper military intervention said their colleagues had been duped into believing a big war debate was coming.
“That's the illusion,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., one of 85 House Democrats who opposed the president's request. “This was the vote.”
Welch, like many other Democrats, is skeptical that America will ever be able to identify trustworthy partners on the ground in Syria.
“You're going to have a bunch of white guys vetting these people over in Syria. Our confidence abounds, but that's tough,” Welch said.