WASHINGTON (AP) — In the heat of an election campaign, Congress cleared the way for the U.S. military to train and equip Syrian rebels for a war against Islamic State militants Thursday night, reluctant ratification of a new strategy that President Barack Obama outlined scarcely a week ago.
The 78-22 Senate vote sent Obama legislation that also provides funding for the government after the end of the budget year on Sept. 30, eliminating any threat of a shutdown. The House approved the bill on Wednesday.
In an appearance at the White House soon after the vote, Obama said he was pleased that a majority of both Republicans and Democrats had supported the legislation. “I believe we’re strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together,” he said. Noting the killing of two Americans by the Islamic State group, he said that “as Americans we do not give in to fear” and would not be put off by such brutal tactics.
In the Senate, 44 Democrats, 33 Republicans and one independent voted for the bill, while nine Democrats, 12 Republicans and one independent opposed it.
The issue created new fault lines for this fall’s elections for control of the Senate as well as the 2016 race for the White House.
“Intervention that destabilizes the Middle East is a mistake. And yet, here we are again, wading into a civil war,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. laying down a marker for Republican presidential primaries still more than a year distant.
Sen. Mark Begich, in a difficult re-election campaign, said, “I disagree with my president” on the wisdom of having the U.S. military become involved. “It is time for the Arab countries to step up and get over their regional differences” and be more aggressive in the fight against terrorists, the Alaska Democrat said, drawing a quick rebuttal from Republican rival Dan Sullivan.
For a second straight day, the administration dispatched top-ranking officials to reassure lawmakers — and the public — that no U.S. ground combat operation was in the offing. Obama made the same promise in an address to the nation eight days ago laying out his new policy — and repeated it Thursday night. His new strategy includes increased airstrikes in Iraq and the possibility of strikes in Syria.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told one House committee that Obama “is not going to order American combat ground forces into that area.”
Appearing before a different panel, Secretary of State John Kerry said the administration understands the danger of a “slippery slope.” The term was widely used a half-century ago as the United States slid ever deeper into a Vietnam war that eventually left more than 50,000 U.S. troops dead.
Obama’s general plan is to have U.S. troops train Syrian rebels at camps in Saudi Arabia, a process that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said could take a year.
The president already has said he will use existing authority to have the Pentagon deploy airstrikes against Islamic fighters in Syria as well as in Iraq.
From halfway around the world came a chilling reminder from militants who already have overrun parts of Syria and Iraq and beheaded three Westerners. This time, the Islamic State group released a video showing a British journalist who said he was their prisoner.
In Washington, leaders in both political parties supported the Senate legislation, draining the debate of all suspense.
Asked about approving Obama’s plan in the wake of the war in Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “Iraq was a mistake. I was misled and I voted wrong. But this is not Iraq, this is a totally different thing.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also favored the legislation, yet said it must be followed by a top-to-bottom review of the administration’s global military strategy.
Combining approval for aid to the rebels with funds to prevent a government shutdown into a single vote made it difficult to measure support for Obama’s new military mission. Some senators opposed arming the Syrian rebels but voted for the measure anyway to avoid a government shutdown. Others supported it despite opposing the underlying spending measure.
Senate liberals split.
Both lawmakers from Kerry’s Massachusetts, Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, opposed the bill.
But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Obama proposed a moderate, middle course between doing nothing in response to a terrorist threat and refighting the Iraq war. “Every civilized person has to stand up against this,” she said.
In Alaska, the Republican challenger, Sullivan, said Begich’s approach “encourages our enemies. Saying no to everything is not foreign policy.”
While Democrats expressed fears that the legislation could lead the nation back into a war, some Republicans were skeptical that Obama’s strategy was strong enough to prevail.
As a result, the legislation provided a narrow grant of authority that will expire on Dec. 11. It specifically stops short of approving the deployment of U.S. forces “into hostilities or into situations where hostilities are clearly indicated by the circumstances.”
The expiration date means Congress will return to the issue in a postelection session scheduled for mid-November.
The vote in the House on Wednesday giving Obama authority to train rebels was 273-156.
More Democrats, 85, voted to defy the president than Republicans, who cast 71 votes against the policy advanced by a commander in chief they distrust.