WASHINGTON — In the heat of an election campaign, Congress cleared the way for the U.S. military to train and equip Syrian rebels for a war against Islamic state militants on Thursday, reluctant ratification of a new strategy that President Barack Obama outlined scarcely a week ago.
The 78-22 Senate vote sent Obama legislation that also provides funding for the government after the end of the budget year on Sept. 30, eliminating any threat of a shutdown. The House approved the bill on Wednesday.
The measure split Republicans and Democrats alike, and created new fault lines for this fall’s elections for control of the Senate as well as the 2016 race for the White House.
“Intervention that destabilizes the Middle East is a mistake. And yet, here we are again, wading into a civil war,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. laying down a marker for Republican presidential primaries still more than a year distant.
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Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat in a difficult re-election campaign, said, “I disagree with my president” on the wisdom of having the U.S. military become involved. “It is time for the Arab countries to step up get over their regional differences” and be more aggressive in the fight against terrorists,” he said.
For a second straight day, the administration dispatched top-ranking officials to reassure lawmakers — and the public — that no U.S. ground combat operation was in the offing. Obama made the same promise in an address to the nation eight days ago laying out his new policy.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told one House committee that Obama “is not going to order American combat ground forces into that area.”
Appearing before a different panel, Secretary of State John Kerry said the administration understands the danger of a “slippery slope.” The term was widely used a half-century ago as the United States slid ever deeper into a Vietnam war that eventually left more than 50,000 U.S. troops dead.
Obama’s general plan is to have U.S. troops train Syrian rebels at camps in Saudi Arabia, a process that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said could take a year.
Additionally, the president already has said he will use existing authority to have the Pentagon deploy airstrikes against Islamic fighters in Syria as well as in Iraq. Hagel said the president received a detailed plan for operations in Syria during a visit Wednesday to U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, and was reviewing it.
From halfway around the world came a chilling reminder from militants who already have overrun parts of Syria and Iraq and beheaded three Westerners. This time, the Islamic State group released a video showing a British journalist who said he was their prisoner.
In Washington, leaders in both political parties supported the Senate legislation, draining the debate of all suspense.
Asked about approving Obama’s plan in the wake of the war in Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “Iraq was a mistake. I was misled and I voted wrong. But this is not Iraq, this is a totally different thing.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also favored the legislation, yet said it must be followed by a top-to-bottom review of the administration’s global military strategy.
Senate liberals split.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, conceded the threat posed by forces seeking an Islamic State. But he said countries in the Middle East most threatened had not yet joined the international coalition that Obama is assembling.
“Not only are countries in the region not stepping up in the fight … but believe it or not several of these Gulf states are empowering” Islamic State forces as well as al-Qaida allied groups with financial contributions, he said.
But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Obama proposed a moderate, middle course between doing nothing in response to a terrorist threat and refighting the Iraq war. “Every civilized person has to stand up against this,” she said.
While Democrats expressed fears that the legislation could lead the nation back into a war, some Republicans were skeptical that Obama’s strategy was strong enough to prevail.
As a result, the legislation provided a narrow grant of authority that will expire on Dec. 11. It specifically stops short of approving the deployment of U.S. forces “into hostilities or into situations where hostilities are clearly indicated by the circumstances.”
The expiration date means Congress will return to the issue in a postelection session scheduled for mid-November.
The overall spending bill will prevent a government shutdown like the one that occurred a year ago, when House Republicans tried to eliminate funding for Obama’s health care program.
It finesses yet another issue that divides the GOP, renewing until next June the Export-Import Bank, which helps finance purchases of U.S. exports. Tea party lawmakers want to abolish the agency, while business-oriented Republicans support it.
The vote in the House on Wednesday giving Obama authority to train rebels was 273-156.
More Democrats, 85, voted to defy the president than Republicans, who cast 71 votes against the policy advanced by a commander in chief they distrust.