Senate Votes to Fund Syrian Rebels Against ISIS, Avert Government Shutdown (Updated) (Video)

Manchin said he's concerned about arming Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Manchin said he's concerned about arming Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 18, 2014 at 6:35pm

Updated 6:50 p.m. | After some last-minute drama on immigration, the Senate took care of Congress’ last must-pass piece of business before the November elections — keeping the government funded and providing authority for arming and training Syrian rebels in the fight against the terror group known as ISIS.  

Senators voted 78-22 in favor of the continuing resolution funding the government through Dec. 11, with the bill’s next stop President Barack Obama’s desk, well ahead of the end-of-the-month deadline to preventing a government shutdown.  

The bill, which the president has said he will sign, provides billions the president intends to use for his war on ISIS , but does not explicitly authorize that war  beyond arming “vetted” Syrian rebels. The vote did not cut cleanly along party lines, which came as no surprise.

The GOP opponents included Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, Ted Cruz of Texas, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Jim Risch of Idaho, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama.  

Independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont also voted no.  

Before reaching the debate-limiting cloture vote and final passage, senators narrowly rejected, 50-50, a bid by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to table the so-called amendment tree and allow the offering of other amendments. Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Cruz billed this as a proxy vote on legislation to block funding Obama’s promised expansion of executive action on immigration after the elections.  

“In a few moments, senators in this chamber will cast one of the most important votes they will ever cast in their Senate careers,” Sessions said. “With this vote, senators will make a simple but vital decision. It is a decision that will steer the future course of this nation.  

“With this vote, senators will decide whether their allegiance is to President Obama, Majority Leader Reid, and the open borders lobby, or whether their allegiance is to the American worker, the constitutional order, and our sovereign nation’s immigration laws.  

“The choice could not be more clear. Do we, as a nation, have the right to control our own borders? That is the question every senator will be answering today.”  

The move almost succeeded, which could have led to a ping-pong with the House, a rebuke to the White House and potentially a government shutdown showdown over immigration.  

The tactic isn’t new, and the vote isn’t that simple, but a similar vote has been used as GOP campaign fodder .  

Meanwhile, the debate over what to do about ISIS, also knowns as ISIL or the Islamic State, had supporters and detractors on both sides of the aisle.  

Manchin was among those opposed, outlining concerns in a Wednesday floor speech, including doubts about the level of support from Arab states.  

“I have seen no evidence that the Syrian rebels we plan to train and arm will remain committed to American goals or interests. The vast majority of national-level Syrian rebel groups are Islamists, none of whom are interested in allying with the United States, and none of whom we should be associating with. Further, the opposition fighters that we will train care more about overthrowing [Bashar] Assad than they do about defeating ISIS. Assad is evil, but he is not a threat to America,” Manchin said. “If the ‘moderate opposition’ have to choose between defeating Assad and defeating ISIS, why do we believe they’ll choose our priority over theirs? How do we know that they won’t join forces with ISIS if it helps them overthrow Assad?”  

Hearings this week in the Armed Services and the Foreign Relations committees demonstrated the level of concern among lawmakers about the Obama administration’s plans to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which goes by various names including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  

Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., highlighted the effort being led by Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., to draft a new authorization to address ISIS after the elections.  

“Beyond this, we’re going to take of construction of a new authorization for use of military force. It’s long overdo. We are living on borrowed time and are living on vapors,” Durbin said. “Sen. Menendez, Sen. [Tim] Kaine, myself, others are dedicated to a new AUMF that will be actively debated with hearings in the Foreign Relations Committee, leading to a vote on the floor as it should be.”  

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., subsequently noted that the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill will be on the post-election schedule, which could serve as a vehicle for a debate.  

There’s no knowing until after the elections what exactly the schedule might look like.  

Of course, the use of a stopgap continuing resolution to fund the government also generated concerns, in a fiscal year when the Senate did not pass a single standalone appropriations bill. That’s the point Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, made in a Wednesday floor speech. The Utah Republican was one of the leaders of last year’s ill-fated health care overhaul defunding strategy that was widely ridiculed for prompting the government shutdown.  

“As recently as fiscal year 2006, Congress passed 11 free-standing appropriations bills. To put that in context, that’s more than Congress has passed for all fiscal years since then, combined. The House still routinely passes free-standing appropriations measures. For fiscal year 2015, the House has passed seven such bills,” Lee said. “The Senate, by contrast, has passed zero. Not only has the Senate passed none of its own, it has refused to pass — or even vote on — any of those passed by the House.”