Now that President Obama has made his case for military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it falls to those in Congress who have worked to stymie his agenda at every turn to round up support for a key piece of his strategy.
House Speaker John Boehner and his lieutenants will ask their restive conference to vote to allow the president to arm pro-Western Syrian rebels, potentially as a part of a government funding bill. And many of those Boehner will be asking are still smarting over elements of the leaders' must-pass spending bill to keep government from shutting down Oct. 1.
Leaders face defections on both sides. Democrats are quietly threatening to withhold support if the president's desired authorization is not included in that continuing resolution, and conservative Republicans are unhappy that the spending measure separately includes a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and extends spending authority into December rather than into the new year.
This adds up to yet another test for Boehner, new Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, just a month after they barely salvaged a controversial border-spending measure. This time, the leaders will have to thread the needle, finding the right combination of Democratic and Republican votes that can pass a measure to simultaneously allow the government to stay open, commence Obama's plan to defeat ISIS, and reauthorize a lending institution seen as an important economic engine in many members' districts.
The House Republican Conference plans to meet Thursday morning, and leaders will have their first real chance to see how warm members are toward the president's proposal. Afterward, all House members will huddle for a classified briefing, during which officials will lay out more detailed elements of the president's plan to defeat ISIS.
"I think I speak for my colleagues on both sides of the aisle when I say that we stand ready to listen and work with the president," McCarthy said on the House floor.
The Capitol Hill wrangling comes two days after the president met with top congressional leaders in the Oval Office, and he and Vice President Joe Biden personally called several powerful members of Congress to round up support for attaching the military authorization to a CR. As a result, McCarthy announced late Wednesday that the spending measure, originally scheduled to see floor consideration Thursday, would be postponed into next week while leaders gauge support.
But several concerns remain on Capitol Hill, not least of which is whether the administration will be able to adequately vet the moderate Syrian rebels to whom they intend to give weapons and equipment. The administration's plan does not ask for funding, but rather authorization to arm groups it identifies as pro-Western, who could then fight ISIS.
"This is a quagmire. We've not had good luck in Afghanistan or Iraq in training personnel that will stand up to ISIL, so I have great doubts about it, but it's worth looking at," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, whom Obama called Tuesday night. "They use the term 'moderates.' I don't know a moderate person in Syria. "¦ We've seen arms that we supplied in Iraq and Afghanistan, American arms, now in the hands of fighters in Syria."
And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is pressing Republican leaders on behalf of the administration to allow a Syria vote, sought to make it clear that the president is not proposing that Americans train Syrians inside war-torn Syria. "I don't support Americans training Syrians in Syria, because then they have to be protected, and then one thing leads to another. But that's not what the president is proposing," she said, highlighting concerns that doing so could be both dangerous and risk escalation of the mission.
Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he recognizes the risks in arming factions in the Middle East. But he said he is confident in the administration's ability to vet the rebels and the president's promise that he will not allow American troops to be embroiled in another war in the region. He said he spoke to the president Tuesday night and is convinced there is no alternative.
"These guys are much more organized and more dangerous than al-Qaida ever was. We had September 11 because we allowed them to group and didn't disrupt them in Afghanistan," Engel said. "If we allow this ISIS group to not be disrupted in Syria and Iraq, we're going to have many more 9/11's in the United States and Europe and all over the world."
It remains unclear, however, how Republican leaders will bring up the measure next week. A top House Republican aide said the White House has made its preference for inclusion in the CR clear on the grounds that the spending bill must be passed to avoid a government shutdown when the new fiscal year begins. Pelosi echoed that sentiment Wednesday.
"I want it to be whatever engine is leaving the station—and that's one that is leaving the station that's for sure [a] must-pass bill," Pelosi said.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, prefer to see the Syria authorization written into the text of the continuing resolution, but they are allowing the House time to work. If that fails, Majority Leader Harry Reid is prepared to offer the military authorization as a separate measure, according to a Democratic leadership aide.
Yet Rogers, whose committee would have to rewrite the bill to include the military measure, said he is concerned that tacking it to a CR is not prudent. But he said that if leadership believes that is the easiest way to move the measure, he will do it.
"Frankly, it needs to be done separately on its own; it's that big of an issue. However, time is of the essence here, and if leadership makes the decision that they would like to add it to the CR, I will salute smartly and go about it," Rogers said.
But even then, there are other potential problems facing the Republican leaders and vote-counters in passing the continuing resolution that would extend funding for government through Dec. 11, even with the Syria language.
Some rank-and-file House Republicans, urged on by Sen. Ted Cruz, say the CR's Dec. 11 expiration is too short a duration, and that the continued funding should extend into next year. Some question why Senate Democrats led by Reid should be able to maintain leverage on another funding extension, or some other new spending vehicle, during a postelection lame-duck session if it turns out the GOP has captured the majority in that chamber, a very real possibility.
Another potential impediment is unhappiness within elements of both parties, for different reasons, with the bill's current Ex-Im Bank language.
The bank provides loans to foreign entities to help them buy American products. But House Republicans say their conference is split over letting the bank survive. Many House conservatives have criticized it as "crony capitalism" and say its charter should be allowed to expire without renewal.
A short extension to June 30, with a prospect of winding the bank down then, was seen by GOP leaders as a way to pacify these members, if only for a time.
At the same time, most Democrats and many business groups support the bank's survival, and with their votes crucial to passing a spending measure, Democrats are toying with the notion of holding out for a longer extension of the bank's charter. On Wednesday, Pelosi criticized the Ex-Im language now in the bill, saying the extension should last for years, not months.
"The meager, kicking the can—not even down the road, but off to the side—that they have in the bill is not a reasonable way to go. And I would hope that they would reconsider that," she said of Republicans. "So, we'll see what they think they have the votes for, and if they need our votes, we'll see what that is."
Republicans had said that plans to pass the legislation to keep the government funded and open beyond Oct. 1 were a relatively simple task as they headed into this week.
Lawmakers in both chambers expect to adjourn in less than two weeks until after the Nov. 4 elections, a schedule that, if left unchanged, limits the window for action on the spending bill.