The Senate passed a broad Middle East policy bill Tuesday that incorporates a rebuke of President Trump’s plans to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan with strong bipartisan support — but its fate in the House remains uncertain.
The measure combines several legislative efforts that have been percolating through Congress in recent years, including an increase in sanctions against anyone who supports the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an extension of support to Jordanian security forces helping to combat the Islamic State and other threats to regional stability, and an authorization of security assistance to Israel.
It also includes a politically controversial measure to bolster state and local laws to limit the reach of a global anti-Israel boycott campaign protesting the occupation of Palestinian territories — a provision that could spark challenges in the House, where some of the party’s newest members are opposed to efforts seeking to limit criticism of Israel.
In the Senate, however, the bill became a flash point for the congressional GOP’s standoff with Trump after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered last week an amendment effectively rebuking the president for announcing his intention to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
The language McConnell successfully inserted, with the support of most Republicans and about half of Senate Democrats, trumpeted the work that U.S. troops have done in battling the Islamic State and the importance of their continued presence for the stability of the region and the security of U.S. allies. Critically, it also declared that the Islamic State continues to pose a threat — directly countering Trump’s rationale for removing troops from Syria.
Trump’s December order had caused a rare revolt in the GOP, whose members were particularly shaken when former defense secretary Jim Mattis decided to resign in the wake of Trump’s announcement. But though Democrats have also criticized the president’s move, about half of those in the Senate balked at signing onto the McConnell-led effort to rebuke him, fearing that a vote calling on Trump to leave troops in Syria and Afghanistan might be construed as an endorsement of endless war.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Robert Menendez (N.J.) sought to allay such concerns Monday, with a measure that declared that the amendment could not be interpreted as legal authorization of the military campaigns in Syria and Afghanistan. Many Democrats have been agitating for Congress to pass a new authorization for use of military force to specifically approve the engagements against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and related groups, arguing that the 2001 authorization the administration is relying on is overextended and out of date.
The Senate adopted Menendez’s clarifying amendment by voice vote Monday. But the change did not bring all Democrats on board to back the overall bill. The measure ultimately passed by a vote of 77 to 23, with all of the Democrats who have thus far announced a 2020 bid for the White House voting against it.