Washington – President Obama hopes Congress votes this week to allow the Pentagon to arm and train Syrian rebels, but Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is absolutely not on board.
Since Obama laid out his strategy to combat Islamic militants named ISIS or ISIL last week, Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been at the forefront of congressional opposition to the president’s plan to arm and train Syrian rebels.
“To begin with, it will be very difficult to thread the needle of supporting a Shiite regime against a Sunni insurgency in Iraq while, at the same time, supporting a Sunni insurgency against a Shiite regime in Syria,” Murphy said in a speech on the Senate floor last week. “I want ISIS defeated in Syria. I want (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad to pay for his crimes against humanity. But too much can go wrong, for not enough possible gain, for the U.S. to increase our involvement in the Syrian civil war.”
Murphy repeated his objections to the plan at a press conference in Hartford on Monday.
But it’s not the first time Murphy has been at loggerheads with the president on foreign policy.
Last year, Murphy was critical of Obama’s plan to take military action against Syria in an effort to end al-Assad’s rule.
At that time, lawmaker’s leaned towards Murphy’s way of thinking and the administration failed to win congressional support for military action.
This time, the beheadings of Americans by ISIS and news of other atrocities have helped move public opinion – and lawmakers – toward a more aggressive stance.
Those include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said “it’s clear to me that we need to train and equip Syrian rebels and other groups in the Middle East that need some help.” Reid hopes to schedule a vote this week on a bill that would allow the Pentagon to do that.
But there is a group of lawmakers who will vote against giving the Pentagon authority to arm and train Syrians, and Murphy will be one of them.
Murphy’s high-profile stance on Syria poses a problem for the White House, said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
“When you have a senator taking you on, it can be very awkward,” he said.
But Rothenberg also said Murphy is also playing a legitimate role “trying to rally elements of the Democratic Party” to his point of view.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and other members of the state’s congressional delegation have expressed skepticism about the president’s plan — but not to the extent of Murphy, who has also clashed with Obama over the president’s authority to expand operations into Syria.
While the president needs congressional approval to shift money in the Pentagon budget to address Syria, Obama said he has authority to conduct war based on a resolution Congress approved shortly after the 9-11 attacks.
Murphy says he doesn’t.
“Now respectfully, I disagree that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed in the days following September 11th grants the president the power to conduct an open-ended, long-term war against ISIS,” Murphy said. “If that were to be the case, there is absolutely no congressional check upon the executive’s power to open up military fronts against extremists groups anywhere in the world at any time. “
Congress may consider a new authorization in a lame-duck session this fall. Waiting until after the Nov. 4 elections would make it easier to some lawmakers to vote for it.
Gary Rose, head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University, said Murphy was always an anti-war advocate, winning his first election to Congress against former Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson with the help of his opposition to the Iraq War.
“It’s not clear Murphy and like-minded senators can stop a bill authorizing the arming of Syrian rebels or another piece of legislation that would give the president wide discretion in his fight against ISIS.
But Murphy is making his name for himself on foreign policy, Rose said. “Where this takes him in the future, I don’t know.”