House Votes to Authorize Aid to Syrian Rebels in ISIS Fight
WASHINGTON — An unusual but overwhelming coalition in the House voted Wednesday to authorize the training and arming of Syrian rebels to confront the militant Islamic State, backing President Obama after he personally pleaded for support.
The 273-to-156 vote was over a narrow military measure with no money attached, but it took on outsize importance and was infused with drama, reflecting the tension and ambiguity of members wary of the ultimate path to which any war vote could lead.
There was rare unity between House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, who strongly backed the training legislation and sought to portray it as a modest measure. And the opposition included the equally unlikely pairings of antiwar Democrats and hawkish Republicans.
The Senate hopes to pass the legislation Thursday.
“The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission,” Mr. Obama pledged to troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida as the House debated his request. “I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”
But the theater around the debate and vote belied that portrayal. The president, vice president and top White House officials personally lobbied for passing the bill, calling more than 70 Democrats and Republicans on national security committees and in leadership posts to appeal for their support. Mr. Obama and his allies pleaded with lawmakers not to undercut him as he tries to assemble an international coalition to confront the terrorist group.
“Obama is our commander in chief. You don’t weaken the commander in chief when we’re in a serious crisis,” said Representative Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Opponents in both parties framed the vote as a step toward a wider conflict in a region where American troops have been fighting for more than a decade. Republican and Democratic vote-counting operations said they would not press for “yes” on what they termed a vote of conscience.
“Launching airstrikes on another country, by any standard, by any definition is an act of war,” said Representative Rick Nolan, Democrat of Minnesota. “Have we not had enough of imperial presidencies doing what they want in the world?”
Ultimately, 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats supported it; 71 Republicans and 85 Democrats voted against it. The stopgap spending bill to fund the government through Dec. 11 and extend the life of the Export-Import Bank into next June then passed, 319 to 108.
Fewer than 140 of the 429 House members who voted Wednesday were in the House in 2002 when Congress authorized the invasion of Iraq. For the vast majority of lawmakers, Wednesday’s was their clearest vote on war and peace. But that 2002 vote hung heavily over the six hours of debate on Tuesday and Wednesday. Several veterans of the Iraq War stood against the president’s request. Older Democrats recalled with bitterness their vote to back the invasion of Iraq, a vote that ended many careers.
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“The last time people took a political vote like this in this House, it was on the Iraq War,” Representative Loretta Sanchez, Democrat of California, said, “and many of my colleagues say it was the worst vote they ever took.”
Representative Duncan D. Hunter, a California Republican who fought with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, joined others in questioning how the military could be sure the rebels of the Free Syrian Army could be trusted with United States arms and how suspect Saudis could host the training.
“We need to crush ISIS and not work on arming more Islamic radicals,” he said.
The legislation, drafted as an amendment to a routine bill to keep the government funded past Sept. 30, grants the president authority to train foreign forces to confront the Islamic State and to accept contributions in cash and in kind to help finance it. Saudi Arabia has already pledged to host the training of Syrian rebels, and the Obama administration promises to vet the fighters for reliability.
To secure more support, the House Armed Services Committee added provisions mandating a report from the administration on how the training effort plays into a larger strategy to confront the Islamic State. Another provision requires the administration to keep Congress apprised of its progress and success. And the authorization expires in mid-December with the spending bill it would be attached to, ensuring lawmakers will revisit the issue in short order. Language specifies that the measure is not a broad authorization of force against the Islamic State.
“It is not to be confused with any authorization to go further,” Ms. Pelosi said Wednesday, adding, “I will not vote for combat troops to be engaged in war.”
For many lawmakers, even some of the most vocal opponents of the president, a “no” vote proved to be simply untenable.
“I know that many of us in the chamber, from both sides of the aisle, believe the president’s strategy should do more to eradicate these extremists from the earth,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and majority leader. “But despite those reservations — reservations that I share — we must support this amendment and take this first step.” Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois and another Iraq War veteran, expressed disbelief at the opposition, especially in his party.
“What would our allies think if we rejected the president’s request?” he asked.
For many Democrats, it came down to a show of support for an embattled president. Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, said White House officials who called him made the case that the Islamic State’s threat is real, that the vote was an opportunity for the United States to lead, and that the United States cannot solidify an international coalition if Congress undermines its commander in chief.
But the unusual left-right coalition in opposition loudly voiced grave doubts that the training mission will work.
“It is more complex than just an up-or-down vote on arming and training members of the Free Syrian Army,” said Representative Barbara Lee of California, a veteran antiwar Democrat. “The consequences of this vote, whether it’s written in the amendment or not, will be a further expansion of a war currently taking place and our further involvement in a sectarian war.”
The same battle lines will quickly form in the Senate, with the additional twist of presidential politics that could influence the votes of Republican senators like as Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.
“Our past experience, after 13 years, everything that we have tried to do has not proven to be beneficial, “not proven at all,” said Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia and an opponent of the measure. “So what makes you think it’s going to be different this time? What makes you think we can ask a group of Islamists to agree with Americans to fight another group of Islamists, as barbaric as they may be?”
Still, senators said, with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, backing it, there is little chance it will fail. Even as he kept up his fierce criticism of the president’s strategy, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said he would support it.
And unlike the House, the Senate will not have separate votes on the Syrian training and the budget bill.
“It’s just a shame, something this important,” Mr. Manchin said, shaking his head.