If the authority is granted, it is unclear whether American military personnel would be sent into Syria to train foreign fighters.
Support for President Obama’s request appears to be growing and House Republicans abruptly postponed a vote scheduled for Thursday on the short-term spending bill in order to consider Obama’s request.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) signaled Wednesday that he supports fulfilling Obama’s request. “It’s clear to me that we need to train and equip Syrian rebels and other groups in the Middle East that need some help,” he said.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she would support the move only if rebel fighters were trained “out of country” and not in Syria.
In a sign of intensifying White House engagement, the president has personally called lawmakers asking them to support quickly granting the legal authority needed to train foreign fighters. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee that writes spending bills, said he received a call from Obama at 5 p.m. Tuesday asking that the legal authority be included in a short-term spending bill that would keep the federal government operating when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. The House is scheduled to vote on the spending bill on Thursday.
Rogers said "I don't recollect a previous time" that he had received a direct call from Obama asking that something be included in a spending bill. While the call was rare, Rogers seemed upset that Obama would make such a significant request at the last minute.
"They've known about this problem for over a year, they've known that we were getting to do a [spending bill] and just as I was ready to drop it in the hopper, the president calls and asks if we would consider this," Rogers said. "In good faith, we're trying to get briefed up on what the request is, and it's a complicated, big-time change in policy that I'd hate to see us attach to a continuing resolution at the very last minute."
Rogers spoke with reporters after exiting a meeting between senior House lawmakers and senior national security advisers to Obama. Administration officials visited Capitol Hill again Wednesday to share details with lawmakers ahead of Obama's primetime speech.
Top House GOP leaders have scheduled a meeting for 9 a.m. Thursday to take the temperature of rank-and-file members the morning after Obama’s address.
Aides said that there would be no money attached to formal authorization for training and equipping fighters, because the Pentagon would be able to draw from current funding. The administration has told lawmakers that at least $500 million will be needed initially for the training programs, House and Senate aides said.
Reid said Wednesday that “there is money” already to pay for training and equipment and that a vote authorizing new spending wouldn’t be necessary. Senior aides said a separate measure requesting additional funding might be introduced later.
Some senators downplayed the significance of the White House request, saying that it was a plan that was first approved by their Foreign Relations Committee on a wide bipartisan basis 16 months ago and then ignored by the administration. “This is something that should’ve happened a long time ago,” said Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the top Republican on the panel who co-wrote the original proposal before the 15-to-3 vote in May 2013.
Corker said he would support the request, in the funding resolution or as a separate bill, but that it represented a “speck of sand” in terms of the situation in Syria.
The proposal, as drafted then, would have granted authority to the moderate rebels in their fight against the Assad regime, but since then, both Assad’s troops and Islamic State fighters have gained supremacy over the rebels with western support. “You just worry, we’ve let them become so diminished,” Corker said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a leading voice requesting for a full congressional debate, said the new White House proposal was far smaller in scope than an actual use-of-force debate that he has been requesting. A member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine said he too continued to support training and equipping the moderate rebels but feared they have been marginalized since last year. “I think the task has gotten harder,” he said.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, included similar language in the annual Pentagon policy bill, but that legislation is currently not slated for debate until at least November. Levin said that granting legal authority this month is more pressing rather than waiting another two months to pass it as part of the defense bill.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.