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Senate To Vote On Bill To Authorize Arming Syrian Rebels


This does not happen every day - President Obama said he wanted something, and his request made it through the Republican-controlled House.


Lawmakers voted yesterday to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight the group known as ISIS - the Senate votes next.

INSKEEP: It's a rare moment that an issue did not split neatly down party-lines. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.

AILSA CHANG: One of the most agonizing parts about this vote, lawmakers say, is that it is only the beginning of a much messier, much longer debate just around the corner. The White House has not asked yet for congressional authorization to use U.S. forces against the self-described Islamic State. But members here assume that request is coming right after the November election.


REPRESENTATIVE JACK KINGSTON: To vote yes on this and then vote no the next go around - I think it's going to be difficult for people to explain.

CHANG: House Republican Jack Kingston of Georgia says that's why both parties have struggled with a seemingly limited proposal to aid Syrian rebels just through mid-December, and that's why he says the White House needs to do a better job laying the groundwork now for the bigger fight later.

KINGSTON: They need to start developing, well, who are their allies? Who are their friends down here? And this is a neglected body in terms of that, and I'm not speaking strictly as a Republican, but I can say this having served under Clinton, we had a much better relationship even with a president who'd been impeached by this body.

CHANG: Other lawmakers say the White House has already been lobbying them hard. In the Senate, both Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say they're on board. It's a rare united front for two men who have an often testy relationship, but there's been plenty of handwringing in both their camps. Even among those who expect to support the president, like Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri.


SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: None of this is perfect. This is all hard, and this is a bad choice among even worse choices and I - all those people who are criticizing this choice, I have yet to hear their better idea.

CHANG: Some of the loudest criticisms in the Senate have come from the president's own party. Many think it's unfair that the House had the chance to vote on aid to Syrian rebels as a separate measure, but that measure will arrive at the Senate embedded in a larger spending bill.


SENATOR JOE MANCHIN: I do not believe that we should be forced to decide between funding our government and arming our Syrian rebels in the same vote.

CHANG: Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia says giving Syrian rebels military support will only draw the U.S. into a civil war with no visible end. He's so opposed to the idea, he will be voting against keeping the government funded. Same with Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska who says other Arab countries - not the U.S. - should be taking the lead on this conflict.


SENATOR MARK BEGICH: It's great they're offering some training areas, some planes and some photo ops, but at the end of the day, they got to put people on the ground. It's their neighborhood.

CHANG: But the most vexing concern to them and others is, how do we select the right Syrian rebels to help? That task seems impossible to many, and that's why Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut says he'll also be voting against the government funding bill today.


REPRESENTATIVE CHRIS MURPHY: I think the administration is putting together as airtight a plan as possible to try to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys. But we will lose control once they reenter the Syrian battle space.

CHANG: So who could separate the good guys from the bad guys in that Syrian battle space? Arizona Republican John McCain says he could.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Because I know the rebels. I visited with them many times. I know them.

CHANG: So you think it's possible to pick which ones...

MCCAIN: Of course.

CHANG: ...Will be loyal to us.

MCCAIN: Of course, absolutely.

CHANG: The Obama administration will have three months to show it's as easy as McCain says before it has to persuade lawmakers once again. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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