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GOP senators call for Special Forces in Iraq and Syria, as Obama officials plan Hill briefings

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Two Republican senators said Monday that U.S. Special Operations forces should be part of an air-and-ground campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as the Obama administration made plans to brief all members of Congress this week on the security situation in those nations.

“Air power alone won’t be enough,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We need to put together a wide-ranging coalition and have our Special Forces support it.

“Special Forces are how we took out Osama bin Laden,” he added. “I would not be reluctant to use them.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), in a separate interview, agreed.

“It’s not possible to be successful on the ground without strong American hand-holding,” Graham said. “What you’d want to do is interject Special Forces into kill-the-leader-type operations.”

Graham and Isakson have long been two of the Senate GOP’s leading hawks on foreign policy. Their call for an expanded U.S. military presence comes before President Obama addresses the nation Wednesday to discuss his plans for an offensive in the region and Congress returns after a lengthy recess to debate a path forward. Administration officials plan to offer briefings to all members of Congress.

National security officials are expected to brief U.S. senators on Wednesday, with a similar session for members of the House scheduled for Thursday, according to senior congressional aides familiar with the plans. It was not immediately clear which administration officials would be providing the briefings to Congress.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hear from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff next Tuesday.

Closed-door briefings for lawmakers are typical and have occurred several times in recent years to review various global threats. Usually mid-level military, intelligence and national security officials are dispatched to share information, including videos and documents, when necessary. While all lawmakers are invited to attend, 100 percent attendance is rare.

In addition to the closed-door briefings, the House Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees have scheduled hearings for next week to review the threat from the Islamic State. Similar Senate hearings are expected to be scheduled.

In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Obama said his remarks Wednesday would not include any announcement of a strategy that includes the addition of U.S. ground troops.

“The notion that the United States should be putting boots on the ground, I think would be a profound mistake. And I want to be very clear and very explicit about that,” Obama said.

There is growing support on Capitol Hill in both parties for further military action against the Islamic fundamentalist group, especially among Republicans. Some conservatives have said the GOP is becoming more supportive of a muscular foreign policy as ISIS has become a central issue. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a leading pro-interventionist voice on the right, said last week that Republicans are moving back to their “inner hawkishness.”

Last week in an op-ed for TIME, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said, “We must not let the standard trope that there be no ‘boots on the ground’ become a mantra of self-defeat or a definition of intelligence operations and special capabilities.”

Isakson and Graham both said Monday that U.S. personnel may need to play an integral role on the ground, perhaps leading specialized combat missions and guiding coalition airstrikes.

“We need to find as many partners as possible,” Isakson said. “But there is no question in my mind that the ISIS threat is very real and the longer they are left to build, the worse it’ll be. We should go after the cells and the leadership — not with an invasion, but with surgical strikes that take them out.”

Graham said a “heavy maneuver element” was likely unnecessary but that U.S. Special Forces are almost certain to needed due to the “lack of a military capacity” of other countries.

“That’s how you cut off the head of the snake,” Graham said.

They also said that Obama should move fast, and that it is unnecessary for him to seek congressional authorization for military action. But they urged him to do so in order to build bipartisan consensus.

“It would be helpful, but he doesn’t have to,” Isakson said. “He has already written Congress a letter about his war powers. I think it would better for him to act quickly once a plan is developed.”

“He’s got a competency and trust deficit,” Graham said. “I’m a big executive authority guy but it’d be good for him to get buy-in from Congress and start to engage people and bring people to the White House.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, agreed, saying that Congress should quickly debate whatever Obama requests and then hold a vote despite any political concerns with elections fast approaching.

“The one thing that Congress is good at is second-guessing and criticism,” he said in an interview over the weekend. “And I think it’s too easy for us to say, oh, we’ll take this up next year in the meantime we’re going to say that the president is doing too much or too little. I think we have a responsibility to stand up and work with the administration in terms of what authority is necessary.”

But the shape of a congressional debate on military action could be nuanced and complex, based on the comments of several senators Monday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who also caucuses with Democrats, said that Obama "has the right" to continue using airstrikes to attack Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria without congressional approval. "But I am very strongly opposed to the use of ground troops and before ground troops were used, there most certainly has to be a vote," he said.

In a Senate floor speech Monday afternoon, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called for an aggressive military response to the growing threat of the fundamentalist group, but made no mention of using ground troops.

“I don’t believe the American people are one bit reluctant to defend our national security, to defend the lives of fellow Americans,” Cruz said, adding later: “We should concentrate on a coordinated and overwhelming air campaign that has the clear military objective of destroying the capability of ISIS to carry out terror attacks on the United States.”

Cruz said he also would be introducing legislation that would strip U.S. citizenship from any American who is “fighting for a hostile foreign government or foreign terrorist organization.” And he said that Congress should immediately bolster security along the U.S.-Mexico border amid the “rumored” intent of ISIS personnel to enter the U.S. illegally through the southern border to commit acts of terrorism.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) described the Islamic State as "pure evil" but she -- like many lawmakers -- said that Obama would need to use his speech on Wednesday to clearly dictate a strategy and address the nation's war-weariness. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism is an especially urgent subject Minnesota, she said, noting that at least a few residents are known to have traveled to the Middle East to join up with the Islamic State.

"It's a big deal in our state and what it allows me to see is that it's not just about a faraway place, it's affecting us here at home. So I think that there's a clear national security case to be made, he needs to make it."