The votes to authorize costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still haunt some lawmakers more than a decade after those wars began. No one knows this better than the current crop of presidential hopefuls in the Senate, who on Thursday had to decide whether to approve President Barack Obama's request to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State.
A conflicted Congress this week approved $500 million in funding to equip Syrian rebels, thereby authorizing the Obama administration to expand its military campaign against extremists in the region. The measure, which in the Senate was attached to a must-pass bill to fund the government, cleared by a vote of 78 to 22. The vote was largely bipartisan, with 45 Democrats and 33 Republicans supporting the measure, while 10 Democrats and 12 Republicans opposed it.
By avoiding a standalone up-or-down vote on the Syria matter, Senate leaders gave their members political cover on a hot-button issue less than two months before the midterm elections.
The tally provides some insight into the inclinations of those senators considering a presidential run in 2016. All potential 2016 candidates for the White House voted against, except Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Here's where they stand:
Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
The Florida Republican and Senate Foreign Relations Committee member has positioned himself as one of the most hawkish voices of his party in recent days. Though he voted in September 2013 against airstrikes against the Syrian government, Rubio on Thursday signed off on the latest escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria. In a statement shortly after the vote, Rubio said that action was necessary because "if we fail to influence the direction of that situation, it would leave open a space for radical jihadists from all over the world to establish an operational space from which they could carry out their plots – not just against us, but all free and freedom-loving and peace-loving people in the world."
Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
In a bit of a surprise, the conservative firebrand known for supporting a muscular U.S. policy abroad voted against the measure. Cruz, who recently proposed bombing Islamic State militants "back to the Stone Age," echoed concerns among both Republicans and Democrats that arming Syrian rebels was a risky endeavor, one that could further destabilize the region and possibly even empower President Bashar Assad. “The Continuing Resolution funds Obama’s Amnesty, it funds Obamacare, and it funds military operations in Syria that are not authorized by Congress and are dependent on unreliable actors in the region," he said in a statement explaining his vote.
Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
Despite recent attempts to shed his reputation as an isolationist, the Kentucky Republican voted against arming and training Syrian rebels. While Paul said that he supported an air campaign to fight the Islamic State, he expressed concern that arms provided to moderate Syrian rebels could wind up in the wrong hands. Paul, who has also said that Congress needs to authorize the new military campaign, gave a fiery speech on the Senate floor ahead of Thursday’s vote to criticize the president's plan. “It’s not that I’m against all intervention. I do see ISIS as a problem. ISIS is a threat to us,” Paul said. “There are valid reasons for going to war. They should be few and far between. They should be very importantly debated, not shuffled into a 2,000 page bill and shuffled under the rug.”
Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
The Massachusetts Democrat voted against the measure, and questioned whether arming moderate rebels would be effective in combating the Islamic State.
“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 ... 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," she said, according to the Boston Globe.
In what may have been an appeal to the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Warren highlighted her concern that the measure would lead to a prolonged military engagement in the region.
Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
The Vermont senator, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, has been making headlines recently for a possible progressive challenge to Hillary Clinton, should she decide to run in 2016. Sanders polls well behind Clinton and even Vice President Joe Biden, but he could point to his vote against arming Syrian rebels, among other progressive positions, to pressure the former secretary of state from the left. While he supports airstrikes against Islamic State extremists, Sanders said in a statement after the vote that he fears "that supporting questionable groups in Syria who will be outnumbered and outgunned by both ISIS and the Assad regime could open the door to the United States once again being dragged back into the quagmire of long-term military engagement.”
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
If Hillary Clinton does enter the race, which by all indications appears likely, the road to the White House in 2016 is probably closed for Gillibrand. But in voting against the measure to arm Syrian rebels, as she did Thursday, Gillibrand may be laying the groundwork for the future. Her opposition was not unexpected, however.
After the vote, Gillibrand tweeted, "After consulting w/experts & admin officials, I don't believe arming the Syrian rebels is an effective strategy, & therefore voted no."