The House and Senate votes on President Obama's plan to arm Syrian rebels against the Islamic State were predictably scattered across the political spectrum. The proposal split both Republicans and Democrats, hawks and doves, and yielded few easily discernible patterns.
To wit: While a clear majority of lawmakers in both chambers backed the president, most members with national ambitions did not. With an eye on campaign politics and the ever-present jockeying for leadership positions in Congress, here are a few votes that stuck out.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
In a Senate filled with White House aspirants, Rubio zigged where others zagged. While Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) all opposed the spending bill that contained the authorization for arming Syrian rebels, Rubio voted in favor of it.
The vote positions him as the most hawkish of the senators mentioned as potential presidential candidates, even if Rubio acknowledged his support for Obama's request came with deep reservations.
In a floor speech before the vote, Rubio faulted Obama for waiting to go after ISIS but said it was "better late than never" and that his plan was "in the best interests of the country."
If we do not confront and defeat ISIL now, we will have to do so later. And it will take a lot longer, it will be much costlier and even more painful. We will confront ISIL one way or the other, and I believe the sooner the better."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
The liberal favorite has repeatedly disavowed interest in running for president in 2016, and yet somehow, she keeps drawing attention to herself. Her vote on Thursday against arming the opposition in Syria aligns her firmly in the anti-war camp with Sanders, the independent who has talked more openly about running for the White House. More notably, however, Warren is establishing her foreign policy to the left of Hillary Clinton, who has acknowledged that she pushed Obama to help the Syrian opposition more than two years ago.
In a statement provided to The Wire, Warren said she "remained unconvinced" that Obama's strategy would be effective in defeating ISIS.
I am deeply concerned by the rise of ISIS, and I support a strong, coordinated response, but I am not convinced that the current proposal to train and equip Syrian forces adequately advances our interests. After detailed briefings, I remain concerned that our weapons, our funding, and our support may end up in the hands of people who threaten the United States -- and even if we could guarantee that our support goes to the right people, I remain unconvinced that training and equipping these forces will be effective in pushing back ISIS. I do not want America to be dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, and it is time for those nations in the region that are most immediately affected by the rise of ISIS to step up and play a leading role in this fight. Therefore, at this time, I cannot support funding for this specific action.”
Clinton has kept quiet on the president's most recent plan, but it's safe to assume the former New York senator would have voted yes.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
The fact that Clinton's interventionist views are so well known makes Gillibrand's vote against the measure all the more interesting, because it was Gillibrand who replaced Clinton in the Senate in 2009.
She has gained in national prominence in her own right in the last few years, and if Clinton makes the surprising choice not to run for president, expect to hear a lot more buzz about Gillibrand. Her vote against Obama's strategy is a break with New York's senior senator, Charles Schumer (D), and it moves her a step closer to the "Warren wing" of the Democratic Party.
#ISIL is a real threat & I commend Pres. Obama for his work building int’l coalition, which is vital. Arab & Muslim countries need to lead.— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) September 18, 2014
After consulting w/experts & admin officials, I don't believe arming the Syrian rebels is an effective strategy, & therefore voted no.— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) September 18, 2014
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska)
Of the handful of vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbents in 2014, Begich was the only one to vote against the military authorization on Thursday. More than anyone, he has used the ISIS threat to distance himself from Obama, who is unpopular nationally and even more unpopular in Begich's home state of Alaska. In a floor speech, Begich said he supported the president's airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, but not his request to arm and train Syrian rebels.
I object to more American boots on the ground and I see arming the rebels as a troubling potential step in that direction. Once we commit to arming and training forces on the ground, there is a stronger likelihood that we will increase the American presence on the ground to manage those assets."
With his re-election race likely in mind, Begich also singled out Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for pushing to include the Syria language in a broader spending bill rather than holding a separate vote.
I am disappointed that both President Obama and Harry Reid refused to the do the right thing and separate these two critical issues so the Senate could do the right thing and address each of them individually. With nearly two weeks until current funding expires, Congress should stay in session to debate these issues separately.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)
Van Hollen is not a household name, but he is one of the fast-rising stars of the Democratic caucus in the House and a possible future speaker. As the party's budget chief, he has been a close ally of both Obama and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in fiscal negotiations with Republicans. So it was surprising that Van Hollen, who is not a major voice on foreign policy, chose to go against them on the Syria vote. The likelihood is that Van Hollen is trying to shore up his support among progressives in the caucus, who he will need in a leadership race if he tries to succeed Pelosi once she steps down.
In a lengthy statement explaining his vote, Van Hollen made clear that he backed "the core pillars" of Obama's strategy against ISIS, but he said he did not support arming Syrian rebels whose primary opposition is not ISIS, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
I believe that it is a well-intentioned proposal that will have unintended negative consequences that will not serve our ultimate goal of defeating ISIS."