Lawmakers returned to work Monday to get an early start on a week likely to be punctuated by grave matters of war – as well as frivolous grandstanding just a month-and-a-half before the Nov. 4 midterm elections.
The serious business began last night. The House Rules Committee voted to proceed with President Obama’s request for authority to arm and train Syrian rebels as part of a $1 trillion stopgap spending measure to keep the government operating beyond the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1. The committee heard from House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Armed Services Committee senior member Mac Thornberry (R-TX), among others.
Obama is seeking $500 million to train and equip elements of the Syrian Free Army who are fighting both ISIS and the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad. Congressional leaders and the White House are being cautious in predicting how the request will play out, but both sides have much riding politically on getting the authorization through the House and Senate by week’s end.
“This is a critical issue” and it’s essential Congress act swiftly, Rogers said.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said earlier on Monday that the administration is gratified by the early signs of support from congressional leaders and rank-and-file members, but that Obama and Vice President Joe Biden would continue to press members on the request.
“We’ve seen public statements from Democrats and Republicans in senior positions … indicate that they support giving the administration the necessary authority to ramp up our assistance to the Syrian opposition by training and equipping them,” Earnest said at a press briefing. “So we’re gratified by that show of bipartisan public support for this urgent priority.”
The spending authority for arming and training the Syrian rebels is one facet of Obama’s plan with NATO allies and some Arab countries. It would combine stepped up U.S. airstrikes, counter-terrorism measures, Syrian Free Army forces on the ground and other steps to attempt to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, as Obama has pledged.
The president’s request to Congress will be considered as an amendment to the underlying continuing resolution to keep the government operating. This means Republicans and Democrats would have the choice of voting to defeat the amendment, if they choose, and still keep the government operating after they leave to campaign for reelection.
Roll Call reported that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and other GOP leaders had hoped to include Obama’s request for authority late last week within the body of the continuing resolution. However, “many Republicans said that request didn’t go far enough to combat an overseas terrorist threat that could one day threaten the U.S. if not sufficiently addressed.”
The rules committee approved an amendment introduced by Thornberry specifically granting Obama the funding authority to arm and train the Free Syrian Army. Thornberry said the amendment would strengthen congressional oversight by requiring detailed progress reports and the vetting of Syrian rebels for training.
Thornberry stressed the amendment does not address the larger question of whether to grant the president additional authority to step up U.S. military action against ISIS – authority Obama insists he already has. “My amendment is narrowly focused on training and equipping Syrian opposition fighters to counter ISEL,” Thornberry said.
Meanwhile, some Democrats didn’t want to vote for spending authority unless they also could vote to authorize the use of military force – “a politically loaded and time-consuming exercise that leaders from both parties don’t want to have to have until the midterm elections,” according to Roll Call.
Although Boehner agrees with many of his members that Obama’s overall strategy for combating ISIS is not sufficient, he said last week the president is entitled to get the additional spending authority he requested – and it is hard to imagine Congress turning Obama down before heading home again.\
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said last Friday that the military could train 5,000 opposition fighters a year, assuming Congress approves the authorization, according to Politico.
The rest of the week will be consumed with political messaging by both parties – which means the House and Senate have scheduled votes on a plethora of bills that have no chance of enactment but are grist for rhetoric along the campaign trail.
The Democratic-controlled Senate wanted to vote last night on the “Paycheck Fairness Act” designed to enhance pay equity for women by allowing employees to sue for punitive damage for wage discrimination. Yet Senate Democrats couldn’t attract the 60 votes necessary to proceed with a final vote. The chamber was also trying to vote again on legislation that allows individuals to refinance their student loans, according to media reports.
The GOP-controlled House, meanwhile, will roll out a package of 15 jobs-related bills that it already has passed but are languishing in the Senate – and vote for them again. Another dozen or so bills dealing with energy production are waiting to be recycled by the House, including one to allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
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