WASHINGTON (AP) — Bending for once to the will of the White House, Republicans and Democrats coalesced Thursday behind President Barack Obama’s call to train and arm Syrian rebels fighting Islamic State militants and pointed toward votes in the heat of a midterm election campaign.
“We ought to give the president what he’s asking for,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said, although he swiftly added that many Republicans believe the Democratic commander in chief’s strategy is too tepid to crush militants who have overrun parts of Iraq and Syria and beheaded two American journalists.
On the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he expected legislation ratifying Obama’s request to clear Congress by the end of next week when lawmakers hope to wrap up their work and go home to campaign for re-election.
Congress is in the midst of a two-week, late-summer session that had been set to focus on domestic issues, principally legislation to extend routine government funding beyond the end of the Sept. 30 budget year. That agenda changed abruptly on Wednesday night, when Obama delivered a prime-time speech from the White House seeking “additional authorities and resources to train and equip” rebels. The forces are simultaneously trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad and defeat militants seeking to create an Islamist caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
Obama says he already has the authority needed to order airstrikes against the militants in Syria, although so far, those attacks have come only in neighboring Iraq.
The White House and many lawmakers say deployment of U.S. troops to train and equip Syrian rebels — activity planned to take place in Saudi Arabia — would require additional congressional approval.
On the morning after Obama’s speech, the administration deployed a battalion of officials to fill in lawmakers on the president’s plan and to field their questions. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others drew a large crowd of lawmakers for a closed-door presentation.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry were expected to testify in public next week when congressional committees hold hearings in advance of any votes in the House and Senate.
There was a strong political subtext to the developments in Congress, eight weeks before voters pick a new House and settle a struggle for control of the Senate.
“We do not want to go home without voting on some measure that goes toward destroying and defeating ISIS wherever it exists,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, using an alternate acronym for the militants.
Reid accused Republicans of taking cheap political shots at the president, and said, “This is a time for the rhetoric of campaign commercials to go away.”
At the same time, candidates seeking re-election will be required to vote for or against the president’s request, and challengers will be on the spot to state their own positions. The issue seems likely to be elevated in importance in a campaign dominated so far by the economy and health care.
Longer term, Republicans served notice they will seek a broader debate.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and a frequent critic of Obama, said Congress will work quickly on the White House’s immediate request. Beyond that, he said Congress must consider “what this multiyear campaign will mean for the overall defense program” — from U.S. nuclear forces on land, sea and air, to a need to “retain dominance” in the Pacific.
Boehner, the leader of the Republican-controlled House, said Obama had made a “compelling case for action,” but questions remain. He said it could take years to train and equip rebel forces, yet “ISIL’s momentum and territorial gains must be halted and reversed immediately.”
He added, “An F-16 (warplane) is not a strategy, and airstrikes alone will not accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish. And the president’s made clear that he doesn’t want U.S. boots on the ground. Well, somebody’s boots have to be on the ground.”
As a president who came to office promising to end wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has been adamant that he is not now leading the nation into a new ground conflict.
Even so, one Democratic supporter of the president, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, said in a statement Wednesday night, ” The U.S. will probably put boots on the ground, but it will be more commando raids and forward air observers with others to do the actual strikes on the ground.”
There were scattered objections to Obama’s request from within both political parties.
Arming and training Syrian rebels “could backfire and be counterproductive to our goal of eliminating” the extremists, said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
Rep. John Fleming, R-La., a tea party-backed lawmaker, said Republicans were divided into two camps.
He characterized the view of one side this way: “This is not the president we choose, but it’s the only president that we have and that we just have to go along with the one that we have and hope that we can hold him accountable for doing the right thing.'”
Fleming said the other group, including himself, believed it was an “insane strategy to go out there and depend on people that are proven undependable” to combat the militants.
He said he preferred “all-out war” waged by U.S. forces.
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