WASHINGTON, D.C. — The House voted to provide the Obama administration the authority to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS Wednesday, despite the widespread concern that the strategy might not work.
The authorization passed 273-156.
The legislation provides the Obama administration the authority to give arms and training to “vetted elements” of the Syrian opposition to fight against ISIS, requires the Secretary of Defense to brief Congress on the plan 15 days in advance and mandates a status report every 90 days. The amendment explicitly denies authority for ground troops.
Both the opposition and support to the amendment — which was attached to the continuing resolution to fund the government — was bipartisan but most voiced concerns throughout the week leading up to the vote.
“[On the Republican side] I think there is not a high level of confidence in the president as a war leader,” Tom Cole (R-OK) told reporters before the vote Wednesday. “So that makes it — even if you think you should be doing something — like going into a football game with a quarterback you aren’t that sure of, so that has complicated the vote.”
Cole argued however that there is a need to support the president in his effort against ISIS.
“The worst thing we could do — and again personal opinion, not party position — the worst thing would be to undercut the president while he’s at the beginning of this,” Cole added — noting that in closed briefings he has pointed out that the strategy is “nearly enough to achieve the objective” something to which Cole said the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey responded was “necessary but not sufficient.”
Among the anxieties lawmakers aired included concerns about the vetting of the Syrian rebels to ensure that American weapons ended up in the right hands, fears that an initial action might lead to more involvement in the region, and a belief that a broader authorization might be needed to actually smite the threat posed by ISIS.
“There are folks that believe we need to give the president what he has asked for. I think that the president has asked for this bare minimum because he knows in his heart it is going to fail,” Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) said this week.
“I think it’s narrow — that what we should be debating is not the Syrian amendment but what the president’s authority is under the War Powers Act and a resolution that would deal with strategy and resources and I think that we are putting our faith in something very ambiguous. Who are going to be these Syrian — the Free Syrian Army? Our history in supporting and funding other groups in the Middle East is not a good one,” Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) said.
Rep. Jim McGovern said that what was really needed was a vote on a larger authorization dealing with involvement in the region.
“These are tough votes and what bothers me is we aren’t even debating an authorization, what we’re taking about tomorrow is kind of a piece of a larger plan and I think Congress does have a roll in debating that larger issue. We ought to have a debate on an authorization on whether we’re going to go forward with this plan or not,” he added.
Even with the authority, many Republicans anticipated it would not be enough.
“It doesn’t get us everywhere we need to be, the commitment needs to be more comprehensive than what the president outlined, but this is the first step that meets the initial objective and go from there,” Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) said Tuesday.
While many lawmakers expressed concerns, party leadership on both sides of the aisle supported the measure and worked to allay lawmakers concerns about the limited authority.
“I frankly think the president’s request is a sound one. I think there is a lot more we need to be doing but there is no reason for us not to do what the president is asking,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters at his weekly briefing.
At a closed door caucus meeting Tuesday evening, Democratic members voice their worries and many left still skeptical of the plan.
“I think people are legitimately concerned about what the vetting process will be, you know folks know that we trained people in the past and the next thing you know people are turning away from us,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) said leaving the meeting. “I think people are just trying to figure out what’s going to be most effective and efficient. I think everybody is legitimately concerned about ISIS and trying to figure out how to go about addressing them.”
The concern that the first step could lead to more actions was intensified by comments Dempsey made before a Senate panel Tuesday, leaving the door open for ground troops and contradicting previous stances from the administration.
“If General Dempsey’s statement were to come true. This is not the end game, this is the first step,” Jackie Speier (D-CA) said Tuesday evening.
“It’s a serious decision we are making and you have General Dempsey who is a straight shooter saying there is some potential for ground troops then obviously that is another factor people are taking into account. But you know there is collective revulsion at ISIS and collective desire to do something and that is shared across the board,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) added.
Despite the concerns the authority passed and will move on to the Senate where anxieties continue to fester.
“It’s a high risk strategy but I think it is the best of t a lot of bad options,” Jim Moran (D-VA) said Wednesday.