Illinois House Dems agonize over vote to fund Syrian rebels

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WASHINGTON — The House vote to fund, train and equip Syrian rebels to battle the Islamic State group — also known as ISIS or ISIL — was an agonizing decision for many war-weary Illinois Democrats, some undecided until just before the Wednesday roll call.

“I changed by mind. I voted against it,” Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., told me as he was leaving the House chamber.

A few hours earlier, Davis told me he would likely be a yes. And when I saw other Chicago area Democrats outside the chamber before the vote — Rep. Mike Quigley, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Rep. Robin Kelly and Rep. Bobby Rush — they all said they were still deciding what to do.

Another Illinois Democrat, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, the wounded Iraq war vet whose views on war should be taken most seriously, told the White House a few days ago that she would be a yes. As we talked in her Cannon House office on Wednesday before the vote, her staff was telling the Obama team she would be a no.

The vote to bolster “appropriately vetted” Syrian opposition forces with $500 million in funding — running through Dec. 11 — to fight ISIL passed on a very unusual 273-156 roll call in the highly polarized House, where most votes are cast along party lines.

Many of the most liberal or progressive Democrats and Libertarian isolationists voted no while GOP hawks and Democrats who agreed with President Barack Obama’s approach to taking on ISIL supported his plan to build up the Syrian forces.

All six Illinois House Republicans voted yes: Rodney Davis, Randy Hultgren, Adam Kinzinger, Peter Roskam, Aaron Schock and John Shimkus.

The Illinois drama was on the Democratic side.

Seven of 12 Illinois House Democrats voted yes: Cheri Bustos, Bill Foster, Dan Lipinski, Quigley, Brad Schneider and Jan Schakowsky.

Schakowsky, a national progressive leader, was an early and strong opponent to the Iraq war. However, the Jewish lawmaker from Evanston teamed with Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim from Minneapolis, in writing a letter to their progressive colleagues urging them to vote yes.

“I think this was the least bad of a number of bad options,” Schakowsky told me.

Five of 12 Illinois House Democrats voted no: Danny Davis, Duckworth, Gutierrez, Kelly and Rush.

“Bottom line, I don’t trust these rebels,” Duckworth told me. She is not against military involvement — Duckworth believes ISIS must be destroyed — but the U.S. needs first a long-term plan in place.

“. . . The U.S. is opening the door to a commitment that we in Congress have not talked about,” she said, adding: “I don’t think these rebels can operate on their own with just four weeks of training in Saudi Arabia against a force that is well-armed, well-trained and battle-hardened like ISIS.”

Gutierrez explained his no vote to me. “If you are going to go to war, you should have a clear objective and you should have, I think, a clear objective to get it done.”

Gutierrez and Schakowsky are among the most informed: They are on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Still, they came to different conclusions on this one.

The party breakdown on the vote is revealing: Voting yes were 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats. Voting no were 71 Republican and 85 Democrats. The Senate is expected to vote on a measure to assist Syrian rebels on Thursday.

House and Senate lawmakers depart this week, returning after the November election. There was talk about a vote authorizing Obama to fight ISIL. But neither party wanted the risk of a war vote before the midterm elections.

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