Sep 18, 2014 7:19 PM

Senate candidates face dilemma on arming Syrians

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) One of the most endangered Senate Democrats broke with President Barack Obama on Thursday over his request to train and arm Syrian rebels battling brutal Islamic State militants, while his Republican opponent backed the Democratic president.

The unusual stances taken by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and his GOP challenger, Dan Sullivan, emerged as the legislation on Syrian rebels created a knotty dilemma for those in tough races in November.

Opposing the commander in chief on a question of fighting terrorists posed risks aplenty, with polls showing the public supports a forceful response against Islamic State fighters who've taken over portions of Iraq and Syria and beheaded two American journalists and a British aid worker.

Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and his Republican challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner, found themselves on the same side of the issue, agreeing on giving Obama authority to help the Syrian rebels. So did Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst, battling for a Senate seat in Iowa.

Yet standing with an unpopular president seeking to broaden a dangerous conflict with no certain conclusion carried hazards of its own. Some lawmakers, Begich among them, said Obama's strategy wouldn't succeed in defeating the militants, and there was little appetite among war-weary voters for an open-ended commitment or the involvement of American ground troops something Obama promised would not happen.

Some Senate challengers avoided questions on the topic altogether, or criticized Obama's policy without saying how they'd vote.

The legislation giving Obama authority to train and arm Syrian rebels passed the House 273-156 Wednesday and the Senate approved it on a 78-22 tally on Thursday. Senate leaders combined the measure with must-pass legislation to fund the government into December instead of holding separate votes as happened in the House, which could help some lawmakers cast and explain a "yes" vote.

How candidates in eight top Senate races responded to the question:


Democratic Sen. Mark Begich voted "no." ''Do not arm with U.S. dollars and weapons the rebels of today who might not be the rebels of tomorrow," he said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Republican Dan Sullivan announced his support for the measure, saying in a statement: "Saying no to everything is not foreign policy. Inaction and signaling to our adversaries what we won't do has its own consequences."


Earlier this summer, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor pushed a committee vote to strip money to arm vetted Syrian rebels from a spending bill, saying at the time, "Our friends today could be our enemies tomorrow." His measure failed. Pryor on Thursday voted for the broad measure to fund the government that included a provision to arm and train the rebels.

GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, Pryor's opponent, voted "yes" Wednesday.


Republican Rep. Cory Gardner cast a "yes" vote Wednesday and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall announced plans to do the same. "We can and will defeat ISIL, but the fight on the ground must be waged by moderate opposition forces, which is why this proposal and its safeguards to ensure those forces are reliable and accountable is so important," Udall said in a statement. ISIL is an acronym referring to the Islamic State militants.


Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley cast a "yes" vote Wednesday. Republican Joni Ernst said through a spokeswoman that she also would have supported the measure if in Congress.

"Joni is open to further arming those who can help us defeat ISIL on the ground, including Iraqi Kurds and some moderate Syrian rebels, if we are able to better ensure those arms don't end up in the hands of those that will threaten American interests or personnel," said spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced plans to support the president. "What the administration is doing is correct," he said this week.

His Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes, said in a statement that she supports strong action to hunt down terrorists but "would only vote for arming and training Syrians if there is compelling evidence that they are trustworthy and effective." Her campaign said she would vote against the measure if it were held as a stand-alone vote, but since it was being combined with spending legislation to keep the government running she would vote "yes."


Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who in July had voted in committee in favor of Pryor's amendment against arming Syrian rebels, on Thursday voted for the spending bill that gives the green light to training the rebels.

Republican challenger Rep. Bill Cassidy voted "yes" Wednesday.


Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic incumbent, voted in favor. "I certainly intend to support the request for funding to train and equip vetted opposition groups in Syria. But I do believe that it would be a mistake for us in Congress not to have a debate about a long-term, broader strategy to go after ISIL," she said at a hearing this week.

Republican challenger Scott Brown did not respond to requests for comment through his campaign.


Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan voted in favor. "I am pleased that the strategy that the administration has developed for defeating ISIS does include the training and equipping the moderate Syrian opposition. This is something that I've pushed for over a year," she said at a hearing, using an alternative name for the militants.

A spokesman for her Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, said, "Thom supports eliminating ISIS, but President Obama and Sen. Hagan have failed to outline a strategy to do so." The statement did not say how Tillis would have voted.


Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and David Espo in Washington and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.


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