WASHINGTON — Congress voted last week to give President Obama the green light to arm and train rebels in Syria to fight against violent jihadist forces in the Middle East.

WASHINGTON — Congress voted last week to give President Obama the green light to arm and train rebels in Syria to fight against violent jihadist forces in the Middle East.


The House voted 273-152 for the first step in what Obama has described as a strategy to "degrade and destroy" fighters who call themselves the Islamic State. Employing brutal tactics that have included the beheading of Western captives, the al Qaeda offshoot had made dramatic gains across Syria and Iraq before the United States began airstrikes against them in Iraq this summer.


The House vote was bipartisan, as was the subsequent 78-22 Senate vote in support of the Obama plan. But many expressed discomfort about taking the first step down a path that could return the United States to an active military presence in the region.


"It is not pleasant. It’s not easy. It’s hard. But it really is necessary for the House to approve this," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said during debate.


House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said if left unchecked, the Islamic State "will surely threaten us here at home."


Obama has proposed training 5,000 "moderate" rebels already fighting against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to take the fight to the Islamic State, which also is known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL. He said they would be part of a coalition that would also include the Iraqi army, Kurdish fighters and other U.S. allies, but that he promised would not include U.S. "ground troops."


The authority Congress gave Obama expires on Dec. 11, which some said would give lawmakers a chance to debate the next U.S. steps in the Middle East. But others said that may not necessarily be the case, and characterized House and Senate action last week as a "war vote."


Some skeptics said Obama was not going far enough, and that his plan was "half-hearted" and might backfire. Others said they had strong doubts about the Syrian rebels who would be given advanced arms.


"This is a plan that is destined to fail for the sake of saying we did something," said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev. He said the Syrian opposition the United States would recruit "is a ragtag collection of 100 disparate groups" that have "no cogent leadership, no organization, no command and control."


Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozman, R-Ark., voted for the bill.


In the House, Reps. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle and Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock., voted for the bill


The Syria provisions were included in a bill that also contained funds to keep the government running until Dec. 11, when Congress is scheduled to return for a post-election lame duck session. Passage of the so-called "continuing resolution" avoided — for the time being — a repeat of the 16-day government shutdown last October.


"Message votes" taken


Before returning to their homes to campaign for re-election, lawmakers scheduled votes on several partisan and controversial bills intended not to pass but rather to be used as fodder during their campaigns.


Senate Democrats scheduled a vote on a "paycheck fairness" bill designed to highlight disparities in what men and women are paid in similar lines of work and to ban companies from punishing workers from sharing such information.


Democrats said the effort was part of a package of bills aimed at giving workers and the middle class a "fair shot." With 60 votes needed to advance, the bill got only 52 votes and was blocked by Republicans. GOP senators argued it would only discourage employers from hiring women for fear of being sued.


Pryor voted for the bill. Boozman voted against it.


In the House, Republicans repackaged a group of pro-development energy bills into a collection and passed it 226-191. The package included approval for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and a rollback of Environmental Protection Agency rules designed to combat climate change.


Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said the bill "would protect and expand American energy production by removing this administration’s roadblocks and preventing unnecessary bureaucratic red tape."


Democrats said the bill was a waste of time as it was sure to be ignored in the Democratic-controlled Senate, the same as other Republican bills on the same topics.


Rep. Paul Tonko, D- N.Y., said the latest effort "delivers more benefits to big fossil fuel and mining interests. It would allow them to extract fossil fuels and minerals from our coastlines and public lands with no serious consideration of public health" and the environment.


Crawford, Cotton, Griffin and Womack voted for the bill.