The Senate voted Thursday to authorize President Barack Obama's plan to arm and train Syrian rebels so they can fight the Islamic State, sending it to the White House for Obama's signature into law.
The vote capped a weeklong debate in Congress that had some worried that too many Republicans and Democrats might oppose Obama's plan. Many Republicans have said Obama needs to do much more to fight the terrorist group — including leaving open the door to ground troops — and openly doubt the wisdom of arming Syrians, while many Democrats fear the plan could ultimately lead to ground troops.
President Barack Obama is seeking authority to provide direct aid to moderate Syrian rebels in the hopes they can fight the Islamic State, and on Thursday, the Senate gave it to him. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
But the Senate easily approved the bill on the back of strong support from members of both parties. The Senate passed it 78-22, just a day after the House approved it 273-156. (The Senate vote was originally announced incorrectly as 73-22.)
Similar to the House vote, the Senate vote saw a mix of anti-Obama and anti-war members vote "no" that don't normally vote together. Among the Republicans voting against the entire bill were Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Mike Lee (Utah) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.), and they were joined by Democrats such as Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).
The Syria authorization was included in a short-term spending bill for the federal government — failure to pass it raised the possibility of a government shutdown at the end of September, but its passage was never really in doubt. Both the authorization and the spending bill expire in mid-December, which means Congress will likely have to revisit both issues in the next few months.
Obama's Syria strategy is part of a broader effort to fight the Islamic State. The other major component is increased airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria, and the White House believes it already has the authority to take this step.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said in the last week that the Senate should back Obama's overall plan, and he got support from key members of both parties. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) argued that both Obama's Syria plan and the increased airstrikes are a far cry from the Iraq war organized by the Bush administration, in large part because Obama does not see a need for ground troops.
Levin said the fact that Iraq's government is asking for help, and a wider range of international cooperation, are also big differences. "This year… we're seeing the participation of key Arab and Muslim states in the region, and their active and visible role will be critical to the effectiveness of any international coalition," Levin said.
Some Democrats, though were openly hostile to Obama's plan. "We need more information," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). Tester said Congress has yet to authorize any spending for a plan that Obama said will cost at least half a billion dollars, and likely more if it takes as long as some believe.
While a broader debate over how to deal with the Islamic State is likely in the months ahead, key Republicans supported the Syria element as an acceptable first step. "I'll support it," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on the Senate floor. "It's a long overdue support for the brave Syrians who are fighting on the front lines of a common terrorist enemy."
Before the final vote, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called on the Senate to hold separate votes on the spending bill and the Syria language, just as the House did on Wednesday. Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) also demanded that Democrats allow consideration of amendments that would block Obama from creating protected status for illegal immigrants.
But Senate Democrats blocked both efforts.