The Senate stalemated Tuesday afternoon on the best strategy to fight the Islamic State, failing to approve an amendment that would allow the administration to go around the central Iraqi government and directly arm Kurdish forces.
The amendment to the annual defense policy bill from Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican and a combat veteran of Iraq, failed on a 54-45 vote. It would have allowed the U.S. to provide equipment ranging from anti-tank weaponry to body armor and communications equipment to the Kurdish peshmerga, one of the more capable fighting forces currently taking on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“I remain committed to supporting the Iraqi Kurds who are the key partners in defeating ISIS,” Mrs. Ernst said in a statement. “The United States simply cannot afford any delays in arming our Kurdish partner on the ground at such a critical moment.”
While senators shot down Mrs. Ernst’s proposal, they overwhelmingly supported moving the overall defense policy bill forward with a 83-15 procedural vote. Democrats had threatened to stall the bill over funding that adds to a war chest instead of removing sequestration caps, but most ultimately supported moving the bill forward — though some have said they will fight the overseas contingency operations funding method on the defense appropriations bill instead.
The president has vowed to veto the defense policy bill with the war chest funding because it alleviates the pressure sequestration places on the military, but does not give any relief to other organizations crucial to defending the homeland, like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, as well as other domestic programs.
The amendment from Mrs. Ernst didn’t break along party lines. Seven Democrats voted for the measure, while seven Republicans, including chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, voted against it.
Some lawmakers, including many Republican 2016 presidential candidates, have said that arming the Kurdish peshmerga is necessary to defeat the Islamic State, especially as the Iraqi Security Forces have faced recent setbacks in losing control of Ramadi. Analysts say that providing arms directly to the Kurds would be a significant step forward in the fight, since weapons provided to the Shiite central government often don’t reach Sunni or Kurdish fighters. The administration is unlikely to undermine the central Iraqi government it has spent more than a decade building up.
When asked about if the military would support a proposal to provide weapons directly to the Kurdish peshmerga, Col. Steve Warren, Pentagon spokesman, emphasized that the military’s strategy in defeating the Islamic State hinged on a unified Iraq.
“Our policy remains that we believe a unified Iraq is the key to success here,” he said. “Our policy remains that weapons and munitions are provided to the central government of Iraq for distribution.”
The Senate also considered two other amendments to the annual defense policy bill on Tuesday. A proposal that would require military lawyers — not commanders — to make prosecution decisions in cases of sexual assault to eliminate retaliation failed on a 50-49 bipartisan vote.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat who has failed to move forward the proposal before, vowed to build support among freshman senators and try again in next year’s defense policy bill. She said the fact that nearly two-thirds of service members who report a sexual assault say they perceive some type of retaliation — a statistic that remains unchanged from 2012, she said.
“I don’t think they’re taking it serious enough,” Mrs. Gillibrand said of the Pentagon. “I think they are trying to placate Congress and are going to yes us to death until we go away.”
The Pentagon and other critics of Mrs. Gillibrand’s reforms have said it would hurt good order and discipline in the ranks by taking some power away from commanders.
An amendment from Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, that would require the Army and Army National Guard to maintain a minimum number of brigade combat teams also failed 26-73. Speaking against the amendment on the Senate floor, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said that while he agreed the Army should have a larger number of combat teams, the amendment created a hollow force since the budget can’t sustain the higher number of personnel.
“We don’t have the funding to maintain the Army and the level he and I prefer,” Mr. McCain said, urging Mr. Vitter to focus instead on finding a solution to sequestration.
The Senate approved an amendment to the defense policy bill 78-21 that codifies the prohibition on torture and names the Army Field Manual as the standard for interrogation tactics for all U.S. personnel.
“I believe past interrogation policies compromised our values, stained our national honor and did little practical good,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement. “This amendment provides greater assurances that never again will the United States follow that dark path of sacrificing our values for our short-term security needs.”
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