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Syria Vote Not Last Word From Congress 09/22 06:31

   The president got what he wanted this past week when the House and Senate 
overwhelmingly approved arming and training moderate Syrian rebels to fight 
Islamic State militants. But the go-ahead is good for less than three months. 
And many lawmakers want a say over the rest of a plan featuring more than 1,600 
U.S. military advisers in Iraq and airstrikes expanding into Syria.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- As far as Congress is concerned, President Barack Obama's 
Mideast war strategy isn't in the clear yet.

   The president got what he wanted this past week when the House and Senate 
overwhelmingly approved arming and training moderate Syrian rebels to fight 
Islamic State militants. But the go-ahead is good for less than three months. 
And many lawmakers want a say over the rest of a plan featuring more than 1,600 
U.S. military advisers in Iraq and airstrikes expanding into Syria.

   Congressional authorization for military action is "long overdue," said Sen. 
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat and the most senior member 
of Congress to question Obama's legal basis for intervening in the Middle East. 
"We are living on borrowed time, and we are traveling on vapors."

   A showdown looms when lawmakers return to the Capitol after midterm 
elections --- and no one knows yet how it's going to play out.

   Permission to prepare vetted Syrian opposition units as a ground force to 
complement U.S. airstrikes expires Dec. 11, at which point the training effort 
won't even have begun. American military leaders say the operation needs up to 
five months to get off the ground. Authorization for the training program is 
also included in a version of this year's defense policy bill, but its passage 
is not guaranteed.

   Although some recent polls suggest a swing in U.S. attitudes toward backing 
foreign intervention, the scars of 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan 
haven't fully healed. Public and congressional support may only be temporary, 
heated after the beheadings of two American journalists by Islamic State group 
militants. Twenty-two senators and 156 House members, Republican and Democrats 
included, opposed the provision this week. Several in both chambers said they 
voted "yes" half-heartedly.

   "I know it's not a perfect plan, but I think we need to start somewhere," 
Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at a hearing.

   November's elections will have a significant impact. If Republicans win the 
Senate majority, they may delay reauthorization until January when newly 
elected senators are in place and they are able to leverage concessions from 
Obama on foreign and domestic policy matters, including possibly a new round of 
sanctions on Iran.

   If they fail to net six seats and remain in the minority, Republicans may 
emerge less determined to cooperate with the president.

   For Obama, Democrats are also unsteady allies now. Most in close Senate 
races voted for the Syrian training mission, but several leading doves bucked 
the trend. And many said they hoped to revisit the issue when Congress 
reconvenes.

   In both parties, the specter of a 2016 presidential race will also begin to 
appear, with potential candidates jockeying for influence and staking out 
positions in defiance of party leaders who've all backed Obama on the issue up 
to now.

   "We must now defend ourselves from these barbarous jihadists, but let's not 
compound the problem by arming feckless rebels in Syria who seem to be merely a 
pit stop for the arms that are inevitably scarfed up by ISIS," said Sen. Rand 
Paul, R-Ky., one such possible candidate, using one of the acronyms for the 
Islamic State group.

   Calls for Congress to establish the legal parameters for fighting the 
militants come from both parties and cover the breadth of the political 
spectrum. There has been widespread rejection of the administration's argument 
that it can operate on the basis of a 2001 law authorizing action against 
al-Qaida and its affiliates and a 2002 resolution for the Iraq war. The Islamic 
State group militants grew out of the al-Qaida movement, but the two alliances 
are now fighting. The Islamic State group didn't exist at the time of either 
vote.

   Conservatives such as Paul and liberal Democrats including Reps. Barbara Lee 
of Texas and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts cited the legal case in voting "no" 
on the Syrian training mission. Foreign policy centrists who supported 
intervention are joining the push for a broader authorization.

   In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the 
Democratic chairman, and Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel's top Republican, 
say they'll draft a bill in the lame-duck session repealing what they call 
outdated authorizations for the use of force and replace them with a new one.

   Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, isn't 
committing yet to such a process. But many in his committee want similar 
action, prompting Secretary of State John Kerry to say the administration would 
cooperate if they move forward.

   "We're not trying to avoid that," Kerry told the panel at a hearing this 
week. "It'd be very good for everybody." Still, he insisted the administration 
had the legal right to launch attacks and that it couldn't wait for Congress to 
act.

   Kerry's reasoning is justified, according to some members of Congress.

   Given the body's gridlock over just about everything and the party divisions 
caused by the war, any wider bill from lawmakers endorsing military action 
probably wouldn't have gained passage --- or at least not in the two weeks this 
month Congress was in session. Democratic leaders told the White House that 
Obama lacked the clout for anything beyond the training mission's 
authorization, legislative aides said.

   House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, 
D-Nev., haven't said whether they'll take up a broader authorization. Sen. 
Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who hopes to replace Reid as the Senate majority 
leader, also isn't committing to such a process; he was a major force in 
ensuring the training element of Obama's plan be kept on a short leash.

   "I lean toward giving the president more latitude, and some of my colleagues 
want to be more restrictive," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading proponent of 
even more forceful military action, said. "I don't know if we'll work out those 
differences or not."

   Still, McCain faulted the Obama administration for not explicitly asking for 
Congress' blessing on the larger war strategy. "This is going to be an extended 
conflict, and they're going to need an authorization," he said. "And they're 
being very short-sighted by not asking for it."


(KA)


 
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