The House is poised to hand President Obama authorization to openly arm Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, despite some bipartisan skepticism of the administration's strategy and a recognition that broader military action will likely be necessary.
The vote will come Wednesday, and Congress will begin debating the matter on the House floor Tuesday afternoon. Even as the administration this week stepped up its bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq, some lawmakers feel torn, reflecting public fear both that Obama's strategy is not enough to defeat ISIS and that the country will again become embroiled in a protracted ground war in the Middle East.
House Speaker John Boehner is asking congressional Republicans to support the White House's request, but nevertheless called the plan an "interim step" and left the door open for a more comprehensive military authorization, if the president asks for one.
"This is an interim step to do what the president has asked. It does not preclude us from revisiting the issue of a broader use of military force," he said Tuesday. "The president's request is to train vetted Free Syrian Army types to fight [ISIS] in Syria. And I frankly think the president's request is a sound one. I think there's a lot more that we need to be doing, but there's no reason for us not to do what the president is asking."
At a Tuesday morning closed-door meeting with the House Republican Conference, Boehner told members that the House is leading the way in crafting the language for the military authorization. The resolution, which will be voted on as an amendment to a must-pass stopgap spending measure, includes reporting requirements mandating that the administration keep Congress abreast of their efforts to arm Syrian counterrevolutionary forces. Boehner painted that as a positive for his conference, noting that if the Senate were to act first, the House could be left voting on language they had no say in writing.
Leadership aides believe the measure will pass, although they do not expect either party to put up enough votes to pass it without bipartisan help. Many in the GOP conference have said they will not support the bill, primarily because they do not trust the administration and want a larger ground campaign to take on ISIS.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who has been working the phones gathering support for the authorization, said he will support it even though he knows many in the conference will not.
"A lot of our members have expressed, privately and on the floor, that we'd like to see the president lay out a broader strategy to go after [ISIS]," Scalise said.
That tone in Congress is largely animated by public opinion. Several recent polls have shown that Americans by and large support stepped-up bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria, but that they have little confidence that the Obama administration will carry out the mission. And although the authorization only covers one aspect of the plan, in the eyes of many members it has morphed into a vote of no confidence in the administration.
"I think in our hearts we all know that what the president is asking for is political cover—that's it—on something he doesn't believe and most of us don't believe is going to be enough," said Rep. Matt Salmon, adding that he will vote against the measure. "This is not a well thought out plan. … I'm not confident authorizing some little component without seeing the fuller picture."
Because of those reservations, House Republicans have acknowledged that a lack of wide Democratic support could sink the measure. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday that he knows Republicans need their votes and, like Boehner, he said he believes a larger-scale military authorization will be necessary later.
There was palpable unease from many Democrats filing out of a closed-door session of their own on Tuesday morning, during which Obama's deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, fielded questions. Members wanted to know how broadly the bill would allow the president to act, what type of consultation there would be with Congress, and where the money would go, Rep. Xavier Becerra, House Democratic Caucus chairman, said after the meeting.
Liberal Democrats in particular said they are lining up against the measure. Congressional Progressive Caucus Cochairman Raul Grijalva said he was leaning toward voting "nay," as he'd rather see a vote on broader authorization, but will wait to decide until at least after a second caucus briefing Tuesday afternoon. Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who was the lone vote against the use of military force in Afghanistan in 2001, said she had many concerns. And she also said she did not believe the authorization should be mixed into the spending measure.
Others, however, broadly support the president's mission. House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel said the United States should not allow ISIS to use a no-man's-land to train militants uninterrupted. The September 11 attacks were partly the result of al-Qaida's ability to exploit a power vacuum in Afghanistan, and if ISIS is permitted to do the same in the Levant, he fears it could lead to terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
"The bottom line for me is there are no good choices left in Iraq and Syria," he said after exiting the meeting, "but the worst choice of all is for us to do nothing, and that's why I think we have to act."
But concerns persist over training non-American fighters, Becerra said: "There's always that uncertainty and that danger that we train someone who ultimately turns a weapon on you."
Many expressed a desire to authorize military force quickly—some calling for a vote as soon as this week. Several Democrats said they needed to take a closer look at the amendment House Republicans offered Monday night. Others still said that the process is moving too fast.
"That we're all operating on this kind of deadline that we all have to get the hell out of here as soon as possible so that everyone can go back and campaign for reelection," said Rep. Jim McGovern, "is kind of a weak excuse to justify the process that we're witnessing right now."
In the meeting, McGovern said members were "trying to make sure their vote is based more on just a nice speech and reassurances not backed up by the facts."
Billy House contributed to this article.