TIME Congress

House Passes Bill to Train and Equip Syrian Rebels

Mideast Syria
A photo provided by the antigovernment activist group Aleppo Media Center shows a Free Syrian Army fighter aiming his weapon during a battle with Islamic State militants in Aleppo, Syria, on Aug. 17, 2014 AP

The bill passed despite wariness from lawmakers in both parties about President Barack Obama's strategy against ISIS

Correction appended, Sept. 18

The House passed legislation Wednesday to authorize the training and equipping of Syrian rebels, approving a key part of President Barack Obama’s strategy for fighting Islamist militants in the region.

The legislation, which also funds the government through mid-December, passed 319 to 108. But the amendment to arm the rebels passed 273 to 156, with more than 70 members from each party voting against it—signaling the bipartisan wariness of many in Congress to engage in another Middle East conflict.

“I don’t think it was the best choice but it was a step in the right direction,” said Representative Tony Cárdenas, Democrat of California. “It’s my understanding that we’ll get an opportunity to deliberate and then eventually vote on what we’re going to do in December … It was the first time I can remember that I was actually sitting there [on the House floor] wondering how I’m going to vote until I actually voted. And I voted yes.”

Lawmakers who opposed the amendment said the President’s strategy to arm so-called moderate Syrian rebels is misguided. The Obama Administration is hoping these fighters can help beat back the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

“I’ve never been satisfied that we’re not going to end up fighting people that we’ve armed at some point in the future,” Representative Mick Mulvaney, Republican of South Carolina, said. “No one ever defined victory to me that made any sense whatsoever.”

The amendment even lost the support of Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, a top Democratic leader.

“I support the President’s overall strategy; I support what he’s doing in providing air support for the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish rebels,” Van Hollen said. “I have misgivings about this piece because the priority of the so-called Syrian rebels is to defeat [Syrian strongman Bashar] Assad. And I understand that, but it’s hard at this point to see how defeating Assad strengthens the mission against ISIS.”

The Senate is expected to pass the legislation later this week.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported the vote tally for legislation to fund the government. It passed 319 to 108.

TIME Congress

Kerry Seeks to Assure Lawmakers About ISIS Strategy

US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies about US policy towards Iraq and Syria and the threat posed by the Islamic State Group (IS) during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 17, 2014.
US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies about US policy towards Iraq and Syria and the threat posed by the Islamic State Group (IS) during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 17, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

The Secretary of State returns from an overseas trip to drum up support in Congress for the fight against ISIS

Secretary of State John Kerry tried to assure lawmakers Wednesday that the U.S. would not be alone in the fight against Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria, as Congress looks to pass legislation this week to equip and train the “moderate” Syrian rebels.

“This cannot be simply a campaign by the West against the East,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee before which Kerry testified. Kerry responded that Menendez was “absolutely correct.”

“When we say ‘a global coalition’ we mean it,” said Kerry, who recently returned from a trip to the Middle East to rally about 40 countries for the fight against the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). While there’s currently “no discussion” about countries sending in ground troops, Kerry said some have committed to air strikes. U.S. Central Command announced Wednesday that it has conducted a total of 174 airstrikes across Iraq.

Kerry said military action would end “when we have ended the capability of [ISIS] to engage in broad-based terrorist activity.” The ultimate goals of the fight include a “political settlement” in both Syria and Iraq to end terrorist safe havens there, he added. Kerry said that the U.S. strategy will be a “multiyear effort.”

The top two leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez and ranking Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, cautioned the Obama Administration against engaging in such a long military conflict in Syria without new, explicit congressional authority.

“As I have said many times, temporary and targeted air strikes in Iraq and Syria fall under the President’s powers as commander in chief, but if the military campaign lasts for an extended period of time, Congress will need to approve an [ISIS]-specific Authorization for the Use of Military Force,” Menendez said.

Kerry reiterated the Administration’s position that it would act under the 2001 AUMF against al-Qaeda and associated forces, enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He said that when ISIS separated from al-Qaeda a year ago in a “publicity stunt,” the organization did not change its targets and thus was still under the force of the previous congressional authority. Kerry added that he would welcome congressional action, but that President Barack Obama would act if the legislative branch did not.

Corker ripped Kerry’s response.

“To say that you’re going to do this, regardless of what we say—you’re not going to ask for a buy-in from the United States Senate or the House of Representatives on behalf of the American people—in a conflict that you say is going to be multiyear… taking us into another country with a different enemy, it’s exercising the worse judgment possible,” Corker said.

TIME Congress

Congressional Hearing into Benghazi Attack Avoids Political Circus

Trey Gowdy, Elijah Cummings Benghazi
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, the ranking member, arrive as the panel holds its first public hearing to investigate the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 17, 2014. J. Scott Applewhite—AP

Special panel debates security reforms following 2012 attack

The first hearing of a special congressional committee investigating the 2012 attack on an American consulate in Libya could have dissolved into partisan bickering, finger pointing and cut microphones on Wednesday. But it did not.

Instead the committee, led by Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), focused on how the State Department can better protect U.S. diplomats as it implements recommendations from an independent review board. The 2012 attack in Benghazi killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and has long been political fodder for conservative criticism of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy record.

In the hearing, the State Department touted that it has taken each of the 29 recommendations from the review board, and 38 of 40 recommendations provided by another panel.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we are going to implement every one of these recommendations,” said Greg Starr, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security. Starr said the State Department has instituted new measures to better evaluate the security threats at the top 30 high-risk posts by creating a more efficient internal chain of command.

Some lawmakers focused their remarks on one of the recommendations that won’t be implemented—the creation of an undersecretary for diplomatic security—even though a similar recommendation had been approved but not carried out by the agency after an embassy attack in East Africa in 1998.

“It’s recommendation No. 1,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “What’s it going to take to put in place the practices that save American lives?”

But the committee did not devolve into a political circus. Outside opposition efforts, including a liberal website designed to counter attacks lobbied against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were largely silent. Cummings expressed hope that the committee could continue to work in such a manner.

“Too often over the past two years, the congressional investigation into what happened in Benghazi has devolved into unseemly partisanship,” Cummings said. “Today, we have an opportunity to focus on reform. How can we learn from the past to make things better in the future? This kind of oversight can be productive, it can be critical, and it can sometimes even be tedious, but it can also save people’s lives. I sincerely hope the Select Committee will stay on the course of constructive reform and keep this goal as our North Star.”

TIME 2016 Election

Elizabeth Warren and Suze Orman Call for Student Debt Reform

Democratic Senators Discuss College Affordability
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (2nd L) speaks as Senate Majority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) (L), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (R) listen during a news conference June 5, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong—Getty Images

Warren didn't touch the question of whether she would run in 2016

Correction appended Sept. 17 at 2:40 p.m.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and personal finance expert Suze Orman teamed up Wednesday morning for a spirited, hour-long discussion about student loans, for-profit colleges and the staggering debt crisis facing tens of millions of Americans today.

The two women, who first met at a 2009 TIME 100 event, clearly saw eye-to-eye on nearly every issue, surprising absolutely no one, anywhere. They often echoed one another in their condemnation of “the biggest banks,” “the crooks” selling exploitative student loans, and corporate control over the lawmaking process.

“Washington works for those who have money and power, for those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers,” Warren said.

“Private banks are financially raping—and I use that word truthfully—raping our children,” Orman said. “It’s ludicrous.”

The question of whether Warren will run for president in 2016 was defused right off the bat, when Orman jokingly announced her own candidacy. Warren remained silent on the issue throughout the panel discussion, hosted by Politico and Starbucks in downtown Washington, D.C., choosing instead to draw attention to her student loan reform bill, which was blocked by a Republican filibuster in June.

The bill would require the federal government and private banks to allow the roughly 25 million Americans, each of whom carry an average of $30,000 in student debt, to refinance their student loans at today’s lower interest rates. It would also cap undergraduate loans at interest rates below 4%. The current interest rate for federal Stafford student loans is as high as 8%; private loan rates often top 14%.

Warren and Orman argued that since Americans collectively carry more than $1.2 trillion in student debt alone—a sum that doesn’t take into account mortgages or other personal debt—they cannot buy houses or cars or make other purchases that would stimulate the economy. Senate Republicans blocked another effort to bring the bill to vote on Tuesday. Warren promised Wednesday to “keep hitting at” it this term.

Both Warren and Orman pointed out repeatedly that student loans, unlike any other type of loan, cannot be forgiven under any circumstances, including bankruptcy or death. Those carrying student debt through retirement “will have their social security garnished,” Orman said, as an appalled Warren echoed her: “Your social security check gets garnished!” Americans who die with student loans often pass on that debt to surviving family members.

One of the challenges in passing the student loan reform bill, Warren said, is that the U.S. government mades $66 billion between 2007 and 2012 off of the interest from federally-backed student loans. Her bill would reduce that profit substantially, but proposes making up the difference through a stipulation in the tax code requiring that those making more than a million dollars per year pay taxes at the same rate middle class families pay, she said.

Toward the end of the discussion, the moderators, Politico’s Mike Allen and Maggie Haberman, changed the topic to the upcoming 2014 and 2016 elections. Orman said that while she would vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, she would much prefer to vote for Warren, who she described as her “political voice.” Warren smiled but didn’t respond.

Allen later asked Warren who her favorite Republican is, to which Warren quickly answered, much to the delight of the crowd, “Living or dead?” When Allen pressed her to come up with her favorite living Republican, Warren suggested Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who voted to advance debate of the student loan reform bill and is working on housing finance reform.

Allen later asked Warren what her reaction would be if Republicans win the majority in the Senate in November, and Mitch McConnell, who is facing a tight race in Kentucky, succeeds and rises to Senate majority leader. “I’ll be blunt,” Warren said. “I hope that he doesn’t come back.”

In one of the final questions, Haberman asked Warren which Republican she would like to see run in 2016. Warren just laughed. “No,” she said. “No.”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly said that Sen. Bob Corker voted for the loan reform bill. He voted to advance debate of the bill.

TIME Congress

Senator Seeks to Cancel NFL Tax-Exempt Status Because of Redskins Name

Cleveland Browns v Washington Redskins
A Washington Redskins helmet sits on the grass during a preseason football game between the Redskins and Cleveland Browns at FedExField on August 18, 2014 in Landover, Maryland. TJ Root—Getty Images

Sen. Maria Cantwell announced the upcoming legislation at a press conference hosted by the Change the Mascot campaign

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said Tuesday that she would soon be introducing legislation to end to the NFL’s tax-exempt status because of its refusal to pressure the Washington Redskins to change the team name.

“The NFL needs join the rest of America in the 21st century. We can no longer tolerate this attitude towards Native Americans,” Cantwell, a member and former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said Tuesday. “This is not about team tradition; it is about right and wrong.”

Cantwell joined tribal leaders and lawmakers at a press conference on Capitol Hill hosted by the Change the Mascot campaign. It’s been a year since the Oneida Indian Nation launched the Change the Mascot ad campaign against the Washington Redskins. On Tuesday, the campaign announced they would continue pressing the NFL to get urge Redskins owner Dan Snyder to reconsider the Washington team’s mascot and call on other team owners to join the effort to get the name changed.

In an open letter being sent to every NFL team owner, the Change the Mascot campaign says “the league is promoting this racial slur with the resources of every team, including yours, which makes it a league-wide crisis.” The letter continues, “If owners like you finally stand on the right side of history and publicly demand action, the NFL can and will change the team’s name.”

The coalition calling for a name change has grown over the past year, with lawmakers including President Obama speaking out against the Washington team’s name. Broadcasters and publications have agreed to not use the term. And earlier this summer a federal agency canceled the team’s trademark because of its use of a racial slur, though the Redskins organization has appealed that decision.

Through it all, however, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has said repeatedly he will not change the team’s name or mascot. “I respect the opinions of those who disagree. I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn. But we cannot ignore our 81 year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country,” Dan Snyder wrote in a letter to fans last October.

TIME Congress

Top Lawmakers Confident Bill To Train and Equip Syrian Rebels Will Pass

Senate Lawmakers Address The Media After Their Weekly Policy Meetings
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) answers questions following the weekly Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol September 16, 2014 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee—Getty Images

President Obama looks to receive congressional support to equip and train Syrian rebels

Top congressional leaders indicated Tuesday that the short-term spending bill to keep the government open, combat the West African Ebola virus and train and equip Syrian fighters opposed to Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq will pass this week.

“When that bill passes [the House] and comes over here, I’m confident that it will pass on a bipartisan vote,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a press conference Tuesday. “I’m glad that we’ll fund the government and give the President the tools he needs to combat ISIS,” he added, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he would support the bill, which is expected to pass with the support of Democratic and Republican House leaders Wednesday.

The mood for U.S. intervention in Syria has changed significantly from a year ago, when President Barack Obama first sought congressional approval for airstrikes against the Bashar Assad regime, and even three months ago, when he sought $500 million to aid the Syrian opposition. Many congressmen now feel compelled to act after ISIS has gained control of more territory in Iraq and Syria and broadcast the beheadings of two Western journalists and an aid worker over the past several weeks.

“I think most members agree that what’s happened with the beheadings of now these three innocent citizens . . . and the narrative and threats associated with that, is a direct attack on the United States of America and our interests and our citizens here and abroad,” said Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.). “I think there is a strong sense in the Congress to respond to that and to respond strongly . . . And that’s what’s different than the vote we were about to have on Syria last time, which was in response to horrific, immoral acts, but drawing the connection between it being a direct threat on U.S. citizens was harder for the Congress to draw. I don’t think that connection is hard here.”

Despite their leaders’ position, some Tea Party Republicans and dovish Democrats have expressed opposition to the bill over concerns that Syrian rebel groups have not been properly vetted.

“I have concerns on every level on this thing, not the least of which is who this army is and how do you sort them out,” said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who has not yet decided on how he will vote on the amendment to train and equip the rebels. “When you have some experience in this part of the world, you get very wary about what you really know.”

 

TIME Congress

John Boehner: ‘Nothing Good Happens After 10 P.M.’

House Speaker John Boehner releases a "day in the life" video

Ever wondered what it’s like to spend a day as Speaker of the House?

Maybe not, but Speaker John Boehner and his social media gurus have given us a glimpse, releasing a video Tuesday that chronicles everything from his early mornings at Pete’s Diner to the end of the business day. There’s also an impromptu Emmitt Smith appearance amidst the “organized chaos” of his schedule, as one staffer puts it, and some practical advice from the 64-year-old Speaker.

“Nothing good happens after 10 p.m.,” says Boehner. “So, I’m always in bed before ten. Get up at five-thirty, quarter to six, and ready to go.”

On Monday, the House completed legislative business by approximately 9:56pm.

TIME Congress

House Panel Seeks to Permit Obama to Train and Equip Syrian Rebels

A Free Syrian Army fighter carries his weapon on one of the frontlines of Wadi Al-Dayf camp in the southern Idlib countryside
A Free Syrian Army fighter on one of the frontlines of the Wadi Al-Dayf camp in the countryside of Idlib, Syria, Sept. 14, 2014. Khalil Ashawi—Reuters

A House panel is writing a bill to authorize President Obama to arm and train the Free Syrian Army

Updated at 7:45 p.m. on September 15

President Barack Obama may soon get the approval he needs from Congress to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria.

The House Armed Services Committee has drafted an amendment to grant authorization to the President to arm and train Syrian rebels opposed to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

There are some strings attached, including requiring that the Pentagon report to Congress 15 days before it plans to train and equip the rebels, and provide subsequent updates to relevant committees every 90 days.

The language will be included as an amendment to a government funding bill that needs to pass Congress by the end of the month to avert a partial government shut down. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a key member of the House GOP whip team, said the amendment will pass this week.

Speaker of the House John Boehner said last week that the Free Syrian Army—perceived to be a moderate opponent of Assad’s regime—has “by and large been very well vetted by our intelligence officials” and are “about to get run over.” He has also said that the President needs a broader strategy than airstrikes alone.

The amendment states that it does not give the Administration authority to send armed forces into the conflict. Some members of Congress believe the Administration will have to submit a separate “Authorization to Use Military Force” measure to expand U.S. military involvement in Syria for an extended period of time. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) derided separating the measure training and equipping the rebels from an AUMF. “A bold way forward,” he joked to a group of reporters at the Capitol Monday night. “The Congress rises to the occasion yet again.”

“I think it’s a complete cop out; I’m ready to vote tomorrow,” added Graham, who believes Obama has the authority to act unilaterally against ISIS. “The worst of all worlds is believing that it’s required but you’re not going to do it until after the election. That’s pretty poor.”

Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that the new effort to train and equip the rebels would require “specific congressional authorization,” but the Administration believes it has the authority to act militarily against ISIS without an AUMF.

 

TIME 2014 elections

Kentucky Democrat Takes Shots at Mitch McConnell and Obama in New Ad

"I'm not Barack Obama," says gun-toting senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, before lecturing Republican opponent on how to hold a firearm

Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes shows off her skeet shooting skills in a new ad distancing herself from President Barack Obama.

“I’m not Barack Obama,” says Grimes, decked out with earplugs, a shooting vest and yellow tinted glasses, and holding a semi-automatic Remington rifle. “I disagree with him on guns, coal and the EPA.”

Grimes also blasts her National Rifle Association-approved opponent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for awkwardly holding a gun earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“And Mitch, that’s not how you hold a gun,” says Grimes. Her campaign confirmed that the firearm used in the ad is owned by the Democrat.

The ad follows a tradition popularized by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who famously shot a hole through cap-and-trade legislation in a 2010 campaign ad. Republicans have also picked up on gun imagery this year. Alaska Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan shot a television in protest of special interest advertising and Iowa’s Joni Ernst shot a target in protest of Obamacare.

McConnell is up by 5 points in the race, according to polling data compiled by Real Clear Politics.

Update at 12:05 p.m. on September 16

The McConnell campaign responds with a new ad.

TIME

Congressman Mark Sanford Breaks Engagement to Argentine Fiancée

Mark Sanford
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford at the NAACP 1st Congressional District political forum, April 30, 2013 in Goose Creek, S.C. Rainier Ehrhardt—AP

Sanford has reached the end of the Appalachian Trail

Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina announced Friday that he and his Argentine fiancée are breaking off their engagement, saying their split was due to legal battles with his ex-wife.

Sanford made headlines in 2009 when, as South Carolina’s governor, he revealed that he and the Argentine Maria Belen Chapur had been having an affair. The admission came after he vanished for several days in June to visit Chapur in Argentina, with one of his aides explaining he was hiking the “Appalachian Trail.”

The fib became a running joke and gave a salacious new meaning to the phrase “hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

Sanford announced his break from Chapur in a long Facebook post Friday, saying their relationship was strained by tensions with his ex-wife Jenny Sanford. The GOP Representative is in a custody battle with his ex-wife for their children. “No relationship can stand forever this tension of being forced to pick between the one you love and your own son or daughter,” he said.

He went on: “Maybe there will be another chapter when waters calm with Jenny, but at this point the environment is not conducive to building anything given no one would want to be caught in the middle of what’s now happening.”

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