It's the Senate's turn now to vote on keeping the government open and authorizing the White House's request to train moderate Syrian rebels. But the measure, though expected to pass smoothly, is merely the beginning of a much tougher conversation that will wait until after Election Day.
The House approved a stopgap spending bill Wednesday on a bipartisan 319-108 vote, after a 273-156 tally in favor of adding the language on Syria. A Senate vote is scheduled for Thursday afternoon, as members chafe to return to their states to campaign ahead of the midterm elections.
A broader debate over whether to hand President Obama authorization to use military force in Iraq and Syria is likely to come in December. Wednesday's action in the House, where 85 Democrats—more than 40 percent of the caucus—and 71 Republicans opposed the narrower authorization to arm and train rebels, suggests the next fight could be more difficult for the White House.
Although House members were able to vote separately on the continuing resolution to keep the government's doors open and the Syria authorization, they sent the two measures to the Senate as a single package, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat, said Wednesday that the Senate is very likely to deal with both issues in a single vote.
Overall, if approved by the Senate, the bill would keep money flowing to federal agencies after the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, through Dec. 11, at the current annualized spending level of $1.012 trillion. The stopgap measure is needed because the House and Senate have not agreed on any of the 12 annual spending bills for fiscal 2015.
Senators and aides expect the package to pass with majorities on both sides, but the question of arming and vetting Syrian rebels has produced some discomfort for both Democrats and Republicans. Liberals are questioning the potential for escalation in the use of force in Syria, while conservatives object to the president's overall strategy.
In order to attract both groups, the Syria authorization was very deliberately and very tightly knit together to give the president the authority he desires, while, for the time being, ruling out a ground war and putting a strict time limit on that authority. The authorization, like the continuing resolution, will expire on Dec. 11.
That feature in particular won the support of Republican leadership.
"I particularly like the fact that the Syria authorizing legislation sunsets with the expiration of the CR or the passage of the defense authorization bill," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "What's good about that is even though—again, speaking for myself—I support what the president's doing, I'd like to take another look at it a couple of months from now and see how it's working out."
Senior lawmakers are predicting that a war authorization will emerge as an important issue, likely when Congress moves to approve a bill authorizing the defense budget for 2015.
"This issue will be taken up in the NDAA," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan. Levin suggested that the language in the House package could simply be extended, or that lawmakers may include an authorization for the use of military force, which could involve airstrikes.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez said last week that his committee would begin drafting an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, one that, members on both sides say, is likely to be a major source of contention during the lame duck.
Senate Democrats who had opposed the authorization for the use of force in Iraq as House members are wary of voting to OK a military incursion in Syria. Nonetheless, they say they'll back the continuing resolution that includes the authorization to train Syrian rebels.
"I think it is very important that Congress take up an authorization for the use of military force," said Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. "What we're doing in the CR is clearly not for the authorization of the use of force. It says that specifically."
Although there is widespread support for considering an AUMF, passage looks to be another story.
Already, on just the authorization to arm and train Syrian rebels, Senate leaders have lost a handful of votes on both sides, over concerns about the U.S.'s ability to vet Syrian opposition fighters and the potential scope of the nation's involvement in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. They include conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Republicans Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who are working to brand themselves on foreign policy ahead of potential White House campaigns. (By contrast, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another potential 2016 candidate, says he's a likely yea).
On the House side, Wednesday's votes followed an afternoon of intense floor debate. The president's Syria proposal was described alternately as either a limited use of military assistance to vet, arm, and train moderate Syrian rebels to combat a barbaric force—or an ill-planned strategy that threatens to plunge the U.S. deep into a sectarian war.
"This is an amendment and a debate to start yet another war in the Middle East, with a very uncertain future," said Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California.
"Look at Iraq. Look at Libya," added freshman Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, an Iraq War veteran, fearful that recent hard lessons have not been learned about such intervention.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was among those who argued that the U.S. cannot ignore ISIS and the "genocide of religious minorities." She emphasized that the training will occur outside of Syria, and noted: "This is not an authorization of use of military force. I do not support, nor will I support, combat troops on the ground. That is not what this is about."
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy added, "A threat that has been ignored for too long must no longer be tolerated." And Majority Whip Steve Scalise said, "Americans know this is something that ultimately we will have to confront if we do not address it now with swift action."
"This will not do everything," said the amendment's sponsor, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon. "But it is an important step at this time … to give the commander in chief the authority he needs to protect us in this area."
Pelosi and Speaker John Boehner insisted they had not pressured their members to vote either way on the Syria amendment.
But there was much angling behind the scenes, including the coupling of the president's Syria request with a must-pass spending bill. In addition, a combination of pressures and cajoling from the president and his administration on Democrats, and warnings by former Vice President Dick Cheney against growing isolationist trends in the GOP, helped pave the way for its passage.
Unrelated provisions in the spending bill also attracted votes. Among them is a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank to prevent it from shuttering on Oct. 1, even if its nine-month renewal was far shorter than supporters pushed for.
But it was the Syria amendment that so split Republicans from other Republicans, and Democrats from others in their own party.
Several of the amendment's opponents said they supported airstrikes and other counterterrorism measures. But they noted that Syria is a nation in the midst of a complex civil war, pitting Shia and Sunni, authoritarians and al-Qaida, and other groups.
"I don't see how we are going to be able to thread the needle by arming the good guys without making the bad guys stronger, as well," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
Rachel Roubein contributed to this article.
(Image via Flickr user Lingjing Bao/Talk Radio News Service)