Senate ready to support Obama on rebel aid 

click to enlarge Eliot Engel | John Kerry
  • AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
  • Secretary of State John Kerry, right, speaks with House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, after a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. At the hearing, Kerry sought to push back on an argument by some in Congress that Syria's rebels lack moderates, or at least any with the capacity to make a difference in the war.

Eager to adjourn for midterm elections, the Senate steamed toward final congressional approval Thursday of President Barack Obama's request to train Syrian rebels for a war against Islamic state militants in the Middle East.

The legislation also provides funding for the government after the end of the budget year on Sept. 30, eliminating any threat of a shutdown in the run-up to November elections for control of the Senate and a new House.

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.

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.

Additionally, 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. Hagel said the president received a detailed plan for operations in Syria during a visit Wednesday to U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida., and was reviewing it.

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.

But his fellow Kentuckian, Sen. Rand Paul, opposed not only the president's policy but also the refusal of Senate leaders to permit a stand-alone vote on it.

He warned against creating a vacuum that radical Jihadists may quickly fill. "Intervention that destabilizes the Middle East is a mistake. And yet, here we are again, wading into a civil war," he said.

Paul is a likely candidate for the White House in 2016, and his position set out a clear foreign policy marker in advance of Republican primaries still more than a year away.

This week's vote seemed likely to become an issue in contested Senate races before then.

Like some Republicans, Senate liberals split on the measure.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, readily conceded the threat posed by forces seeking creation of an Islamic State. But he said countries in the Middle East most threatened had not yet joined the international coalition that Obama is trying to assemble.

"Not only are countries in the region not stepping up in the fight ... but believe it or not several of these Gulf states are empowering" Islamic State forces as well as al-Qaida allied groups with financial contributions, he said.

But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Obama's proposal marked 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. 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 only 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 have to return to the issue in a postelection session scheduled to begin in mid-November.

Gen. Dempsey's statement that it will take up to a year to train the rebels troubled some in Congress. "That's too long a time frame," said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., though he voted for the legislation on Wednesday.

The overall spending bill will prevent a government shutdown like the one that occurred a year ago, when House Republicans tried to eliminate funding for Obama's health care program.

It finesses yet another issue that divides the GOP, renewing until next June the Export-Import Bank, which helps finance purchases of U.S. exports. Tea party lawmakers want to abolish the agency, while business-oriented Republicans support it.

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.

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