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With new Syria plan, House seeks to keep Obama on short leash (+video)

The House plan for training and arming Syrian rebels has many checks on the Obama administration to make sure Congress has oversight. Too many, some say.

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    Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, seen here on Capitol Hill in July, is concerned that the new House plan for supporting Syrian rebels might restrict the Pentagon's ability to carry out the operation.
    J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
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The House of Representatives is responding to President Obama’s request to fund the training and arming of moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State, with debate and a vote ahead this week.

But House Republicans want to put the administration on a short leash – too short, say some members of the Senate. That emerging disagreement could spell trouble for the measure, which the White House wants approved before Congress breaks for the midterm elections in a matter of days.

The many checks and balances speak to broader concerns about the mission and the Obama administration's use of power.

Just last week, the House passed a resolution condemning the White House for failing to notify Congress within 30 days – as required by law – of the exchange in May of prisoner Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban held at the US prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The House plan seeks to avert another such end-run around congressional oversight.

But members of both parties and in both chambers also have many questions about the administration’s plans for arming Syrian rebels. They wonder, for instance, about disunity in the opposition and American arms finding their way to the jihadists of the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL.

To keep tabs on the operation, the House measure checks the administration by:

  • Requiring the Pentagon to submit a detailed report of its plans to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels 15 days before the mission begins.
  • Requiring the Pentagon to report to Congress every 90 days on the progress of the mission, including its process for vetting recruits and monitoring end-use of equipment.
  • Stating that nothing in the measure should construe authorization of US combat forces for hostilities.
  • Requiring the president to explain how this mission fits with the overall strategy for the region.

“The language is appropriate. It puts a check on the administration. It prevents the introduction of combat boots on the ground. It requires very close monitoring by the Congress all along the way,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R) of Kentucky.

Senators from both parties worried that the detailed House reporting requirements might restrict the Pentagon’s ability to carry out the mission. “I don’t mind notification, but are they micromanaging the training?” asked Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina in a scrum with reporters.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire has similar concerns. The benefit of a short leash is that there’s greater oversight, she said. But “I’d like to hear from our Defense officials about what that really means in terms of their ability to execute this program.”

She will have that opportunity Tuesday when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee – the first of several hearings about the administration's plan on the Hill this week.

The White House has been in close contact with House members in both parties over the amendment and is confident of its passage. And the House leadership has been coordinating with Republicans in the Senate to assure smooth sailing. But even the best-laid plans have a way of teetering, especially with this Congress and on a subject as sensitive as war.

Training and arming the Syrian rebels is a separate issue from granting the president authority to use armed forces against the Islamic State – which lawmakers say they may take up after the election. But when asked if even this narrow measure could fall apart, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Florida was emphatic and deliberate in his one-word answer: “Yes.”

Indeed, the way the House is considering the measure could present a problem of its own. It would be added as an amendment to a vital temporary government spending bill. On one hand, that gives House members a chance to debate and vote on this amendment on its own – though not change it – while still moving it in a timely manner by attaching it to a must-pass bill.

But the temporary spending bill goes only through Dec. 11, and the amendment provides no funding (though it allows for contributions from other countries, and allows the Defense Department to seek authorization to move money within the department to the program). To fund the Syria program, Congress would in the meantime have to pass an annual Defense authorization bill that includes the new effort.

That’s a concern for Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He worries that a cutoff date of Dec. 11 will send the wrong message to the region – that America doesn’t have the resolve to fight the Islamic State.

“I don’t quite understand a limited [Syria] authorization,” he told reporters on Monday. “Either you want to defeat ISIL or you don’t.”

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