The House on Wednesday advanced President Obama’s request for authorization to train and arm Syrian rebels to combat the Islamic State, an action that blurred party lines and ignited debate over whether the U.S. will be entangled in a conflict it won’t be able to get out of.
The 273-156 passage added the Syria language as an amendment to a must-pass bill to keep federal agencies funded beyond Oct. 1. That larger measure was then approved 319-108.
The Syria amendment, standing alone, was approved by a combination of 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats. A broader coalition of 176 Republicans and 143 Democrats teamed up to pass the spending bill.
The entire package will next head to the Senate.
The votes followed an afternoon of intense debate on the House floor. The president’s Syria proposal was described alternately as either a limited use of military assistance to vet, arm, and train moderate Syrian rebels to combat a barbaric force—or an ill-planned strategy that threatens to plunge the U.S. deep into a sectarian war.
“This is an amendment and a debate to start yet another war in the Middle East, with very uncertain future,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.
“Look at Iraq! Look at Libya!” added freshman Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, an Iraq War veteran, fearful that recent hard lessons have not been learned about such intervention.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was among those who argued that the U.S. cannot ignore ISIS and the “genocide of religious minorities.” She emphasized that the training will occur outside of Syria, and added: “This is not an authorization of use of military force. I do not support, nor will I support, combat troops on the ground. That is not what this is about.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy added, “A threat that has been ignored for too long must no longer be tolerated.” And Majority Whip Steve Scalise said, “Americans know this is something that ultimately we will have to confront if we do not address it now with swift action.”
“This will not do everything,” said the amendment’s sponsor, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon. “But it is an important step at this time … to give the commander in chief the authority he needs to protect us in this area.”
Pelosi and Speaker John Boehner insisted they had not pressured their members to vote either way on the Syria amendment.
But there was much angling behind the scenes, including the coupling of the president’s Syria request with a must-pass spending bill. In addition, a combination of pressures and cajoling from the president and his administration on Democrats, and warnings by former Vice President Dick Cheney against growing isolationist trends in the GOP, helped pave the way for its passage.
Unrelated provisions in the spending bill also attracted votes. Among them is a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank to prevent it from shuttering on Oct. 1, even if its nine-month renewal was far shorter than supporters pushed for.
Overall, if approved by the Senate, the bill would keep money flowing to federal agencies after the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, through Dec. 11, at the current annualized spending level of $1.012 trillion. The stopgap measure is needed because the House and Senate have not agreed on any of the 12 annual spending bills for fiscal 2015.
But it was the Syria amendment that so split Republicans from other Republicans, and Democrats from others in their own party.
Several of the amendment’s opponents said they supported airstrikes and other counterterrorism measures. But they noted Syria is a nation in the midst of a complex civil war, pitting Shia and Sunni, authoritarians and al-Qaida, and other groups.
“I don’t see how we are going to be able to thread the needle by arming the good guys without making the bad guys stronger, as well,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
But Pelosi and others who supported the amendment repeatedly emphasized its narrow focus on training opposition forces outside of Syria, and the lack of any authority in the measure for Obama to send in U.S combat troops.
She and others also described this as only an interim strategy, required under the amendment’s language to be reassessed in December. They kept pointing to the possibility of a broader strategy on use of military force from the president that could be debated and voted on later this year, after the Nov. 4 election. But that was not what was being considered Wednesday with the amendment, they said.
Others said such a broader congressional debate should come first. “The U.S. should have a strategy to defeat the barbarians of ISIS,” said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas.
But he said lawmakers should debate such a strategy now on the House floor, “and not rely on mercenaries.”
Rachel Roubein contributed to this article.