WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans have rebuffed President Barack Obama’s request for explicit approval to train and equip Syrian rebels battling forces seeking creation of an Islamic State and to spend up to $2 billion stabilizing the situation in Ukraine, Iraq and other hotspots, officials said Wednesday.
Despite the setback, administration officials worked to win the support of reluctant lawmakers in the hours before Obama was delivering a nationally television speech to the nation laying out his strategy for combating militants with Islamic State group.
Officials said Obama made two specific requests of lawmakers as they drafted a sweeping spending bill to keep the government open past the end of the Sept. 30 budget year. Neither was included in the bill that the House is scheduled to vote on Thursday, but the situation remained fluid.
The White House request asks for “authority to train and equip appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition to help defend the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Syrian regime” as well as stabilize areas in Syria under rebel control.
Obama pressed leaders for the authority in a private meeting Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says Congress should support the authorization.
“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,” Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday. “The president has tried to get that from us and we should give it to him. That’s one way of helping to build an international coalition.”
Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said the administration is sending representatives to Capitol Hill Wednesday to press the case for training and equipping the Syria opposition. He said it is still unlikely to be added to the stopgap funding bill.
The request is expected to be discussed in a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Thursday. A senior GOP aide said Republican leaders were keeping an open mind on the subject but noted that lawmakers in both parties have expressed reservations about the administration’s lack of follow-up details to earlier requests for assistance to Syrian rebels. The aide insisted on speaking only on grounds of anonymity to discuss internal party deliberations.
Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said Reid may opt to press the idea as legislation separate from the government-wide funding bill. That’s also an option for the GOP-led House.
Republicans also have rejected a companion request to direct $2 billion in unspent funding for overseas military operations to “respond to emergent regional crises” in ” Eastern Europe, support ongoing operations in Iraq, and respond to other potential crises” without harming the Pentagon operations or readiness. The request arrived only Friday and was not issued publicly despite its $2 billion price tag.
A spokesman for top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky noted that three separate Senate Committees have adopted legislation including authorization for training and equipping “vetted” elements of the Syrian opposition but that Reid, who sets the Senate agenda, has not called any of them up for a vote.
There is bipartisan anxiety about helping Syrian rebels, in part because of the potential to add instability to a region already in upheaval.
In a speech in May at the U.S. Military Academy, Obama called for a $5 billion counterterrorism fund, but the proposal drew resistance on Capitol Hill as the administration was unable to spell out how the money would be spent.
The $5 billion request includes $500 million to arm moderate rebels in Syria battling the forces of President Bashar Assad.
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