WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday approved President Barack Obama’s plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to counter the growing threat of the Islamic State terrorist organization even though lawmakers in both parties remain deeply skeptical about its chances for success.
The vote placed Congress one step closer to authorizing the third U.S. military operation in Iraq in the last quarter century, and also put lawmakers on record approving U.S. engagement in the years-long Syrian civil war. It delivered Obama much-needed domestic political support as he seeks an international coalition to combat the growing threat of Islamist terrorism in the Middle East.
But the tally — 273 to 156 — also revealed widespread misgivings in both parties about the plan’s chances of success, even among lawmakers who voted in favor of it.
New Mexico representatives Michelle Lujan Grisham and Steve Pearce voted yes; Ben Ray Luján voted no.
Obama’s proposal was opposed by more than 40 percent of Democrats, many of whom are concerned that new U.S. military operations in the Middle East could fester for several years with no clear strategy or definition of success.
Republicans provided the lion’s share of support, but many are worried that Obama’s plans are too limited. One top GOP leader suggested Congress could give the president blanket military authority, even if Obama doesn’t want it, when lawmakers hold a much broader debate after the November elections about the fight against Islamic terrorists.
Obama on Wednesday repeated his promise not to send combat forces into the military campaign against Islamic State, telling troops in a speech at Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base that he will “not commit you fighting another ground war in Iraq.”
In a statement after the House vote, Obama said, “There will be no U.S. military personnel in Syria as part of this program. We’ve learned over the last decade, and through our successful campaign to degrade al-Qaida, that it is more effective to use America’s unique capabilities to take out terrorist targets in support of our partners’ efforts on the ground to secure their own future.”
The amendment authorizing Obama’s plans was part of a short-term spending bill keeping the federal government operating through mid-December. Supporters included 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats, while 85 Democrats and 71 Republicans voted against the amendment. The Senate is expected to give the bill final approval Thursday.
Several lawmakers who are military veterans or still serving in the armed forces voted against the authorization. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, said the authority “does nothing” to destroy Islamic State. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, a captain in the Hawaii National Guard who served in Iraq, called Obama’s strategy “unrealistic” and worried “it will take way too long” to work.
Some of Obama’s closest congressional allies also expressed deep skepticism. “I have hesitations and concerns about the blank check we gave George Bush,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Israel supported the authorization Wednesday, but said many Democrats would push for language in the fall to prevent the mission from resembling Iraq in 2005 and 2006, when the deadliest fighting took place.
“The one thing I know is that ISIL is a fundamental threat and it needs to be addressed,” he said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State group.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was preparing to hold a vote on the spending measure Thursday.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, co-authored the first bill to help train and arm rebels in Syria, but said Wednesday that he is unsure how the new legislation would work. “There’s a major disconnect,” Corker said, smacking his head for emphasis.
Still, Corker said he plans to support the limited operation in anticipation of a longer debate later this year.,