President Obama’s request for congressional authorization to arm Syrian rebels to help combat the burgeoning threat of the Islamic State would be in serious trouble in the House if not for the unlikely support of liberal Democrats who savaged George W. Bush for the Iraq war.
At a closed-door GOP meeting Thursday, Obama’s plan to arm Syrian Free Army rebels ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from conservatives, who deemed it both fraught with peril and too modest to do any good.
But following Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s quick and forceful support, numerous key liberals said they are backing Obama’s plan, with some indicating they support him despite deep reservations about whether the plan will work.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), an outspoken liberal who helped lead opposition to Obama’s plan to launch air strikes in Syria one year ago, says he supports arming Syrian rebels today.
“Generally speaking, we hardly ever end up defeating the enemy in that part of the world, but we do bloody the enemy, and I think that’s in part what the American people are looking for right now – for revenge. I think that goal will be accomplished,” Grayson said in an interview.
Solidly liberal Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) essentially said she thinks the plan is a bad idea, but doesn’t want to vote against it.
“I have a concerns about the definition of a Syrian moderate and how do you identify a Syrian moderate. And are the Syrian moderates people who can actually take on a war and what my fear is, which I think maybe he fear of everyone here is that the reason we didn’t go into Syria from the beginning was the fact that there were so many factions, so many different groups and we weren’t sure who was who — so how are we so sure now?” she asked.
But pressed on how she would decide on a vote, Wilson said “I probably would not be a no vote.”
Other key liberals that indicated their support include Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Reps. Jim Moran (D-VA), and Hank Johnson (D-GA).
And skeptical Democrats who had questions didn’t rule out voting to arm the rebels.
“I’m not there yet,” said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), a Pelosi ally. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), a key liberal on the House Judiciary Committee, said he might support the proposal “If we find any [rebels] that are worthy of it, and are reliable.” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), the only lawmaker who opposed authorizing the Afghanistan war in 2001, told CNN she “can’t say” if she supports this plan.
Even the most forceful critic on the left, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), didn’t rule out his support.
“Who are these people? And I’ve seen this movie before and is doesn’t have a good ending,” he said, adding, “I’m uneasy. That’s where I am right now.”
With liberals rallying behind a Democratic president in a way they did not one year ago on the same issue, there are intriguing dynamics for a vote, which could come as part of a stop-gap spending bill or, more likely, as a stand-alone bill.
While conservative opponents – who were swift and forceful in denouncing the strategy as doomed – want bolder action they say would have a chance of defeating ISIS, liberal supporters have drawn strict lines against further action, such as troops with combat missions in Syria.
For example, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a key Obama ally on Capitol Hill, said he’s waiting for additional details to be nailed down, and Grayson said he would adamantly oppose ground troops in Syria.
That suggests that changes to appeal to conservatives would likely trigger significant liberal defections, imperiling the vote in a different direction.
If liberal support holds, though, the vote looks to be in fairly good shape to pass with a coalition of mainline Republicans and a broad swath of the Democratic party.
According to participants of the closed-door meeting, the GOP conference is split on the issue. Speaker John Boehner told colleagues that he had a dim view of the president’s plan, but he’s the only president we’ve got, and we should give him the authority he thinks he needs.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also spoke in favor and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said he’s on board.
Other Republicans from the center of the conference like Reps. Sean Duffy (R-WI), Adam Kinziner (R-IL) and Pat Meehan (R-PA) said they would support arming Syrian rebels as well.
But lawmakers on the right third of the conference ripped Obama’s plan, with many saying they were outright opposed.
Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI), who said he is the only member of Congress to have served both in the Vietnam and Iraq wars, said the plan was making him deeply uneasy, especially how the U.S. would go about vetting Syrian rebels as worthy of powerful U.S. weapons.
“What, do you finger print them and check their credit rating? Who does that? A corrupt Iraqi or Syrian rebel? One that you trust? Or you think you trust? Welcome to Vietnam II, except this one’s in the Middle East,” he said.
“I do not support this strategy. I think that it’s a risky strategy with very weak goals. It’s more about managing and sort of neutralizing ISIS, but it’s not about destroying and defeating them,” said Rep. John Fleming.
“I go back to my Vietnam and I watched incrementalism get a lot of people killed. I don’t think you can adequately vet those folks,” added Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN).
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) said he opposes the plan and that he explained to colleagues that from his perch on the Foreign Affairs Committee he’s reviewed the so-called “vetting” done on rebels provided arms and was unimpressed.
“It was supposed to happen in Yemen, it was supposed to happen in Libya, Iraq. And you saw how Iraq fell apart,” he said.
Rep. Ron DeSantis mocked Obama’s plan. “I’d love to see these ‘moderate’ rebels,” he deadpanned. “The idea that you can vet, and pick out, some pro-American force out of a very messy civil war, I don’t think that’s right.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) said “I’m very skeptical of it for a number of reasons. Our consistent experience in the Middle East over the past 40 years is that Islamic allies are at best unreliable and at their worst completely treacherous. The Free Syrian Army has a long history of collaborating with the Islamic State. Their principle objective is not the defeat of the Islamic State, it’s the defeat of the Assad regime in Syria which is currently actively combating the Islamic State.”