U.S. Congress pushes ahead with bid to arm Syrian rebels

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 16, 2014 11:05 AM

By Patricia Zengerle and Emily Stephenson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives began debating legislation on Tuesday to authorize President Barack Obama's plan to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State militants, and lawmakers said the measure would likely pass the full Congress by the end of this week.

House Republican leaders unveiled the authorization on Monday as an amendment to a stopgap funding bill Congress must pass this month, after Obama asked lawmakers to approve the training as part of his broader plan to stop the Sunni militants who have taken over swaths of Syria and Iraq.

House members were expected to vote to pass the amendment on Wednesday, congressional aides and lawmakers said. It would then be sent to the U.S. Senate for approval this week, before lawmakers leave Washington to spend the next six weeks campaigning for the Nov. 4 congressional elections.

The Senate, which is controlled by Obama's fellow Democrats, is expected to approve the amendment.

House Speaker John Boehner said he considered Obama's request a "sound one" and that he saw no reason for Congress not to authorize it, although he did not think Obama's larger plan to stop Islamic State was strong enough.

"If our goal here is to destroy ISIL, we’ve got to do more than train a few folks in Syria and train a few folks in Iraq and drop some bombs," Boehner told reporters after a closed-door meeting with House Republicans, using an alternative abbreviation for the Islamic State group.

POCKETS OF OPPOSITION

There are pockets of opposition to the plan.

Some lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, worried that the training mission could escalate and end with large numbers of U.S. forces sent back to Iraq, where the United States was at war from 2003 to 2011.

Maryland Representative Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House, said there has been a lot of discussion about involvement in another conflict, but he expected party members would provide the authorization Obama wants.

"I don’t think train and equip is the principal concern. The principal concern is deploying American men and women, spending a large sum of money, prosecuting a war," he said.

Several lawmakers also pushed for Congress to consider a broader authorization for the use of force, arguing that the Constitution requires the legislature's approval for a military campaign like Obama's against Islamic State.

But a vote on such an authorization would not take place before mid-November, after the elections at the soonest, lawmakers and congressional aides said.

Republican lawmakers unveiled the amendment on Monday as a way to quickly provide the authority that Obama wants to equip and train the rebels, without forcing a debate on the $500 million the White House wants to pay for it.

The amendment allows the Pentagon to later submit reprogramming requests to shift funds within the budget if it needs money for the program. Those requests can be granted without full congressional approval, needing only authorization from certain committee leaders.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel urged lawmakers at a Senate hearing to move quickly on the authorization, so recruiting and training of a moderate rebel force, which will take months, can get under way.

"Time is of the essence here," Hagel said.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, David Lawder and Krista Hughes; Editing by Caren Bohan and Tom Brown)