Why Senate vote on training Syrian rebels was a bit unusual

The Senate plan to train Syrian rebels passed with bipartisan support Thursday. But there was also strong bipartisan opposition, which points to a fuller debate in December after the midterm elections.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on arming some of Syria's rebels. The Senate passed legislation on the subject later Thursday.

The Senate on Thursday authorized the Pentagon to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group. The approval mirrored the unusual bipartisan passage of the legislation in the House on Wednesday – and serious bipartisan dissent, as well.

As in the House, the Senate approved the measure – which is part of a temporary government spending bill -- by a healthy margin, 78 to 22. But that support has a flip side of disapproval in both parties, portending a loud and long debate when the issue comes up again in December.

In the Senate, nine Democrats, one independent, and 12 Republicans voted against the combined federal spending and Syrian rebels measure. In the House, where lawmakers were allowed to vote separately on a Syria amendment, 85 of 199 Democrats and 71 of 233 Republicans opposed it. Even many “yes” votes were tinged with skepticism.

“This issue doesn’t cleave along traditional ideological lines,” says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in Brunswick, N.J. “Clearly there’s a pacifist faction in the Democratic caucus, and there’s a very hawkish faction [among Republicans] and they just happen to converge on this one.”

For instance, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina again objected to the president ruling out combat troops – though they still voted for the legislation.

Misgivings among the “no” votes fell along two main lines – the scope of the president’s overall strategy to fight the Islamic State jihadists, and the specific plan to aid vetted Syrian rebels. 

On the scope of the plan, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, supports airstrikes on the Islamic State (also called ISIS) but said: “ISIS will never be defeated unless the countries in the region … stand up.” He was echoed on this point by Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, who joined Senator Sanders in voting against the bill.

In the House, Rep. Barbara Lee (D) of California, opposed the Syrian measure, tweeting “we should not act in haste,” while Rep. John Fleming (R) of Louisiana opposed it because it was “little more than an incremental strategy.”

On aid to Syrian rebels, members of both parties also converged. The United States trained the Iraqi Army, yet “they folded in the face of ISIS,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia on Wednesday. “Why do we think training the rebels would turn out any differently?”

He went on to question the allegiance of Syrian rebels. “The opposition fighters we will train care more about overthrowing Assad’s regime than they do about defeating ISIS,” he said – a point echoed by Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, who nonetheless voted for the legislation.

Other concerns include arms getting into the wrong hands, and an international coalition that is not fully formed. The administration says it will vet the rebels, but their plan is “wishful thinking, not realistic planning,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California.

The measure to aid the Syrians – which includes added congressional oversight of the plan – now heads to the president’s desk for his signature. But the measure expires in mid-December, so a post-election, lame-duck session of Congress will have to again debate the topic.

Pressure is building in Congress for a much bigger debate and vote on whether to grant the president authorization to use American military force in fighting the Islamic State. The president maintains he already has that authorization. 

The GOP leadership in the House has indicated it's moving toward an overall authorization debate after the elections, while Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey is working on authorization legislation to fight the Islamic State but "without an open-ended check." Senator Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voted for Thursday's bill but said he still had many questions about the way forward.

Based on the passionate – if short – debate heard in Congress this week, expect the same, only more vociferous and longer when lawmakers return.

Mr. Baker points out that much of the debate will depend on events – in Iraq, in Syria, and among America’s coalition partners. “We’re right smack in the middle of September, and by December, when this will come up again, things may change quite radically.”

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