Reid calls for vote on training Syrian rebels

AP News
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Posted: Sep 10, 2014 4:48 PM
Reid calls for vote on training Syrian rebels

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the run-up to a presidential address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called on Wednesday for a quick pre-election vote to approve the administration's request to train and equip Syrian rebels fighting terrorists seeking an Islamic state in the Middle East.

House Republicans offered no commitment, although Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said at midafternoon, "We stand ready to listen and work with the president to confront this growing threat." His remark came after GOP leaders spurned a personal plea from President Barack Obama and left the issue out of a must-pass spending bill due for the vote in the next few days.

"It's clear to me that we need to train and equip Syrian rebels and other groups in the Middle East that need some help," Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday. "The president has tried to get that from us and we should give it to him. That's one way of helping to build an international coalition." Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California endorses the idea as well.

Emerging from a briefing with administration officials, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and chief author of the spending bill, said Obama called him Tuesday night to ask that approval for the training of Syrian rebels be included.

He said he told the president the administration's request had come late, even though Democrats said it had been transmitted last Friday. Rogers said that lawmakers need more information about the situation in Syria and that a major decision like arming the rebels deserves its own debate.

"In good faith, we're trying to get briefed up on what the request is and it's a complicated, big-time change in policy," Rogers told reporters. "This is a complex, complicated policy change that needs to be fully vetted here in the Congress."

House Republicans planned to meet on Thursday morning to discuss the next steps. Amid the uncertainty, House leaders postponed a vote on the spending bill.

Obama's speech to the nation Wednesday night was seen as crucial to swaying uncertain lawmakers, although he outlined his request to Speaker John Boehner, Reid and two other top lawmakers at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.

The White House request asks for "authority to train and equip appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition to help defend the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the Syrian regime" as well as stabilize areas in Syria under rebel control. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is an alternative name for the Islamic State militant group.

A companion request to direct $2 billion in unspent funding for overseas military operations to "respond to emergent regional crises" in "Eastern Europe, support ongoing operations in Iraq and respond to other potential crises" appeared dead. The request arrived only Friday and was not issued publicly despite its $2 billion price tag.

Some Republicans signaled they could support the request to arm and train Syrian opposition forces, especially if Obama laid out a good case Wednesday night.

"We may not have another option," said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. "I think we need a more comprehensive effort than that but that we're probably going to need that component," Coats added, referring to arming Syrian rebels. He said it's important to ensure they are properly vetted so weapons don't get in the wrong hands.

Lawmakers in both parties have expressed reservations about the administration's lack of follow-up details to earlier requests for assistance to Syrian rebels.

Plan B would be to advance the Obama request separate from the government-wide funding bill, though some House GOP strategists said it may make sense to add the Obama request to the spending bill to speed Congress along the path to adjournment.

After Reid's call, there was no reaction from Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to the president's request.

There is bipartisan anxiety about helping Syrian rebels, in part because of the potential to add instability to a region already in upheaval.

In a speech in May at the U.S. Military Academy, Obama called for a $5 billion counterterrorism fund, but the proposal drew resistance on Capitol Hill as the administration was unable to spell out how the money would be spent.

The $5 billion request includes $500 million to arm moderate rebels in Syria battling the forces of President Bashar Assad.

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Associated Press writer Brad Klapper contributed to this report.