The Senate’s passage of President Barack Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels sets up an even bigger battle in deadline-driven Washington: The Syria cliff.
While the Senate voted, 78-22, to arm Syrian rebels that oppose the Islamic State and temporarily fund the government, the administration’s authority to train those fighters will run out on Dec. 11. While the measure cleared both chambers by a comfortable margin, there was major unease in the ranks of both parties. Many voted for the measure either to get the issue off their plates ahead of the midterms or because they believe they would be able to reengage on the matter in December.
Come December, the administration will have to sell lawmakers on a longer-term strategy and potentially even win congressional backing for a full-blown Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a much trickier proposition.
Finding a consensus on war may be this Congress’s toughest task. Republicans are demanding a more muscular offensive against Middle East militants, while Democrats remain haunted by the previous war in Iraq and are reticent to commit themselves to another long-term conflict — especially given that they’ve spent years running in opposition to hawkish Republican foreign policy.
(Also on POLITICO: House backs Obama’s Syria plan)
Congressional leaders like the way the short-term legislation is structured: The House and Senate both approved the legislation by strong bipartisan margins this week and their vulnerable members get a pass on voting on an AUMF until after the election. The short timeline of the bill passed on Thursday gives Congress and the administration a chance to reassess both the political landscape and the battlefield in Syria and Iraq in less than three months.
“We’re in a good position now. I think it’s important that we have the ability to arm and train the rebels [as well as] the way we’re developing an international coalition. So I feel comfortable where we are,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).