House OKs arms to Syrian rebels, but doubts remain
— The Republican-controlled House voted grudgingly to give the administration authority to train and arm Syrian rebels on Wednesday as President Barack Obama emphasized anew that American forces "do not and will not have a combat mission" in the struggle against Islamic State militants in either Iraq or Syria.
The 273-156 vote crossed party lines to an unusual degree in a Congress marked by near ceaseless partisanship. Top Republican and Democratic leaders backed Obama's plan seven weeks before midterm elections, while dozens of rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties opposed it.
The provision was added to spending legislation that will ensure the federal government operates normally after the Sept. 30 end of the budget year. Final approval is expected in the Senate as early as today.
Testifying before a Senate Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry said the forces seeking to create an Islamic state " must be defeated. Period. End of story."
There was little, if any dissent on that, but debate aplenty about the best way to accomplish it.
"We simply don't know if somewhere down the line it will turn our guns back against us," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., giving voice to a fear that rebels seeking the removal of Syrian president Bashar Assad would eventually prove unreliable allies.
Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California expressed a different concern. "Committing insufficient force in any conflict is self-defeating, and airstrikes alone cannot win a war," he said.
Even supporters of the military plan found little to trumpet. "This is the best of a long list of bad options," said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.
One Republican supporter noted the measure includes strict limits on Obama's authority. "Members on both sides of the aisle are very concerned that too much of Congress' warmaking power has gone to the president," said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
Obama's remarks and similar comments Wednesday by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California seemed designed to reassure liberal lawmakers that the new military mission would be limited.
In a statement following the vote, Obama said the House "took an important step forward as our nation unites to confront the threat posed" by the Islamic State group, showing bipartisan support for a "critical component" of his strategy against the extremists.
Across the political aisle from the president and Pelosi, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California swung behind the plan. Yet many other Republicans expressed concerns that it would be insufficient to defeat militants who have overrun parts of Syria and Iraq and beheaded two American journalists.
In all, 85 Democrats and 71 Republicans voted to deny Obama the authority he sought. The measure passed on the strength of 159 votes from Republicans and 114 from Democrats.