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Congress debates arming moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS

Ahead of President Obama’s speech Thursday night on his plans to attack the extremists, lawmakers debated a measure to arm more moderate rebels.
Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons on one of the frontlines of Wadi Al-Dayf camp in the southern Idlib countryside
Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons on one of the frontlines of Wadi Al-Dayf camp in the southern Idlib countryside on Sept. 5, 2014.

Ahead of President Obama’s speech Thursday night on his plans to attack the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the House delayed a vote to fund the government so it could consider adding a provision sought by the White House to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels.

In Iraq, U.S. forces launched their 154th airstrike against ISIS targets, and Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad, where he praised a new coalition government. “The US will stand by [Iraq],” he vowed.

Obama, whose staunch opposition to the Iraq War helped sweep him into the White House, is expected to announce a comprehensive new strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, as administration officials have said. Besides more airstrikes, the White House wants to arm moderate Syrian rebels and had hoped for Congressional authorization and funding in an upcoming Continuing Resolution to fund the government.

House Republican leaders, however, did not include the provision in their original proposed funding bill, saying it should be debated and voted on separately, rather than slipped into larger must-pass legislation. But Wednesday afternoon, the House delayed a  planned vote on that plan -- a sign that leaders may add the provision after all.

Most lawmakers say Obama has the unilateral authority to use force against ISIS, but that he must acquire Congress’ approval on arming the moderate rebels. The race is on since the House plans to recess Thursday afternoon and after that, has only four more legislative work days before the November elections.

“Go bomb these people, you don’t need an authorization to use military force,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who often supports military interventions, told reporters in the Capitol.  “But now you’re talking about appropriating money... I would like to see Congress acknowledge that this is a good move.”

Democratic leaders, who are crafting a bill to approve the training of moderate rebels, are standing by the White House. The provision would likely make overt the ongoing covert assistance to the Syrian rebels, increasing the aid and moving it from the CIA to the Department of Defense, as has been done with much of the drone program.

"This is a smart, strategic, and effective approach, and I support it,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor. House Leader Nancy Pelosi also give it a thumbs up.

But support from the rest of the caucus is less clear. 

Democrats up for reelection this year, mindful of the precedent set by the Iraq War authorization vote in 2002, seem more hesitant to go on the record either way with a vote on ISIS. While Americans overall may support attacking ISIS, liberals have been more reticent, and in an election year where Democrats are focused on turning out their Democratic base, a vote to arm the rebels could hurt some lawmakers. 

Other Democrats outside the top ranks were also unsure and wanted to hear from the president before weighing in.

“I think the caucus is split,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy told reporters inside the Capitol. “There is a broad agreement in Connecticut that we need an approach to take on ISIS, but there is little agreement on what that approach should be.”

Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, told msnbc he wanted to hear a number of specifics from Obama.

“Number one, what’s the risk? What’s the national interest that’s at stake?” he said. King added that he wanted to see if the White House has support from other countries, including Iraq’s government, and wanted to see what kind of limitations exist on American force.

Republicans have also been circumspect, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissing Obama’s speech as little more than a “lecture.” Instead, he called for a “clear plan.”

To build support abroad, Kerry also visited Amman, Jordan, where he was scheduled to meet with King Abdullah. Obama called Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who agreed “that a stronger Syrian opposition is essential to confronting extremists,” the White House said.

Earlier in the day, former Vice President Dick Cheney visited the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, to lambaste Obama’s alleged inaction. "So often President Obama responds to crises by announcing all the things that he will not do. And here again, we can only hope that pattern ends tonight," Cheney said.

On Tuesday, Cheney gave what some described as a “pep talk” to House Republicans in a closed-door meeting, urging the GOP to draw a harder line on national security at a time when a more isolationist libertarian wing of the party is ascendant.

"The reception I got on the Hill yesterday from my former colleagues was very warm,” Cheney said at AEI. "I just believe those who advocate an isolationist course are dead wrong.”

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, lawmakers heard from administration officials in two hearings that looked at the potential threat of ISIS to the American homeland.

National Counterterrorism Center Deputy Director Nicholas Rasmussen told senators that while the administration knows of no credible threats to the U.S. from the group at the moment, ISIS's international danger is “likely to grow...if left unchecked.” He added: "The United States is not immune.”

Rasmussen added that Al Qaeda, which has disavowed ISIS and homegrown radicalized terrorists are still a bigger threat to the U.S. than ISIS.

At a separate hearing in the House, administration officials outlines steps they are taking to prevent American citizens who may joined ISIS in Syria or Iraq from using their U.S. passports renter the U.S. to launch attacks.

MSNBC Political Correspondent Kasie Hunt contributed to this story.