September 16, 2014 / 3:07 PM / 3 years ago

U.S. Congress pushes ahead with bid to arm Syrian rebels

Rebel fighters make improvised mortar shells inside a weapons factory in the southern countryside of Idlib September 9, 2014. Picture taken September 9, 2014.Khalil Ashawi

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives began debating legislation on Tuesday to authorize President Barack Obama's plan to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State militants, and lawmakers said the measure would likely pass Congress by the end of this week despite some members' reservations.

House Republican leaders unveiled the authorization on Monday as an amendment to a stopgap funding bill Congress must pass this month, after Obama asked lawmakers to approve the training as part of his broader plan to stop the Sunni Islamists who have taken over swaths of Syria and Iraq.

The House was expected to vote to pass the amendment on Wednesday. It would then be sent to the U.S. Senate for approval this week, before Congress leaves Washington to spend the next six weeks campaigning for the Nov. 4 congressional elections.

Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said he expected it would pass with bipartisan support. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the chamber's top Republican, said he supported the plan and was pleased it expires on Dec. 11, the same day as the spending bill.

"I'd like to take another look at it in a couple of months and see how it's working out," McConnell told reporters.

House Speaker John Boehner faces the objections of fellow Republicans who do not want to give the Democratic president what he wants and those who think Obama has not gone far enough, He said he saw no reason for Congress not to back arming the rebels, although he had reservations over the broader strategy.

"If our goal here is to destroy ISIL, we’ve got to do more than train a few folks in Syria and train a few folks in Iraq and drop some bombs," Boehner told reporters, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.

Fear of Escalation

Some lawmakers, especially anti-war Democrats, worried that the training mission could lead to large numbers of troops back in Iraq, where the United States was at war from 2003 to 2011. Many also worried about giving arms to Islamist fighters who might later turn against the United States.

"No matter who we give our arms to, they inevitably end up being used against us," said Representative Rick Nolan of Minnesota, who is voting against the amendment.

Several lawmakers pushed for Congress to consider a broader authorization for the use of force, arguing that the Constitution requires the legislature's approval for a military campaign like Obama's against Islamic State.

But a vote on such an authorization would not take place before mid-November, after the elections, lawmakers and congressional aides said.

The amendment is intended to quickly provide the authority Obama wants to equip and train the rebels, without a debate on the $500 million the White House said it needs to pay for it.

The measure allows the Pentagon to later submit reprogramming requests to shift funds within the budget to cover the program. Those can be granted without full congressional approval, needing only authorization from certain committee leaders.

Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson, David Lawder and Krista Hughes; Editing by Caren Bohan, Tom Brown and Bernard Orr

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