Congressman Charlie Dent broke from the rest of the Lehigh Valley delegation Wednesday when he voted against a plan to train and equip Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State militants.Dent, a Republican who represents much of the Valley, said he has too many questions about President Barack Obama’s proposal for aiding the rebel fighters. The plan is part of Obama’s broader strategy for overpowering the army-like organization now controlling large areas of Iraq and Syria.
Most local lawmakers — and several of their challengers — backed the military proposal even as they expressed a variety of concerns about how the plan will work and whether it will make a difference in the U.S. efforts to overpower the group also known as ISIS and ISIL.
Dent said in an interview after the vote that while he believes the Islamic State militants are a threat to the security of the United States, he’s not convinced the U.S. can efficiently vet the rebel fighters and ensure weapons the country provides won’t be used against persecuted minority groups there, such as Syrian Christians.
His 15th District has one of the highest concentrations of Syrian-Americans of any congressional district, Census data show.
“We’re sort of in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation,” he said, describing the proposal that was approved as a “partial plan.”
Other local lawmakers — Democrat Matt Cartwright and Republicans Mike Fitzpatrick and Lou Barletta — voted for the Syrian rebel plan.
Cartwright said that while he has reservations about training the rebels, he viewed that approach more favorably than not taking action against the militant group or sending in U.S. combat troops.
“Putting boots on the ground in the first instance is not acceptable to me and I think this is worth a try,” said Cartwright, whose 17th District includes parts of Easton and other Northampton County communities.
Barletta, whose 11th District includes parts of Carbon County, said in a statement he also has concerns about what he described as a “somewhat vague” strategy. But he liked the provisions requiring regular reports on how the training effort is going.
“We must know that what we are doing is having the intended effect,” Barletta said.
Fitzpatrick could not be reached for comment on the vote.
The proposal allowing the Obama administration to begin training the foreign fighters was added to a spending bill that would keep the government running past Sept. 30. The authorization will expire in December.
The legislation also will let a federal agency that supports exports, known as the Export-Import Bank, continue operating through June. The Senate could act on the legislation Thursday.
Both chambers are wrapping up their brief September session before returning home ahead of Nov. 4, when the entire House and one-third of the Senate face re-election.
Candidates challenging Cartwright and Fitzpatrick in the general election said they too would have supported the Syrian proposal.
Republican David Moylan, who is running against Cartwright, said he would support the plan, though he would prefer to see Congress vote on a declaration of war rather than what he described as a “piecemeal” approach.
Fitzpatrick’s opponent, Democrat Kevin Strouse, said he would have been a “qualified yes” on the vote. A former Army Ranger, Strouse described the plan as “perhaps the best not-good option.”
HOW THEY VOTED
Lawmakers on the ISIS plan:
• Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11th District: Yes
• Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-17th District: Yes
• Rep. Charlie Dent, R-15th District: No
• Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-8th District: Yes
How their challengers would have voted:
• David Moylan, Republican, 17th District: Yes
• Andy Ostrowski, Democrat, 11th District: Did not respond to phone and email messages
• Kevin Strouse, Democrat, 8th District: Yes