The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boehner’s comments on ground troops reflect views of GOP lawmakers

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Sept. 11. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

This item has been updated.

Going further than he has before, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Sunday that the United States might one day need to deploy U.S. combat troops to counter the threat of the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.

The comments came in an interview broadcast by ABC's "This Week" during which Boehner once again expressed dismay with President Obama's careful delineations of what the United States would and would not be doing against the Islamic State.

"If I were the president, I probably wouldn't have talked about what I wouldn't do," he said. “And maybe we can get enough of these forces trained and get 'em on the battlefield. But somebody's boots have to be there.”

Asked whether that might mean deploying U.S. forces, Boehner said: “We have no choice. These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don't destroy them first, we're gonna pay the price.”

Boehner's fresh comments came a few days after he told the New York Times that debating future military engagement would be inappropriate during the lame-duck session this fall when dozens of lawmakers are preparing to leave. Taken together, his support for possibly expanding the military campaign but waiting until next year to debate the issue unless Obama requests something sooner, reflect the views of many congressional Republicans.

Several who supported Obama's request for congressional authority to train and equip Syrian rebel forces have said they believe he should be doing more. Some Republicans who voted against the president's train-and-equip strategy, including Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), did so because they considered it insufficient. Some senior Republicans, including Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), the retiring chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, agree with Boehner that it would be better to hold a debate before the elections or next year. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the second-ranking GOP senator, supports quickly approving a new congressional war authorization, but only if Obama makes a formal request.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Iraq war veteran who supported Obama's initial proposal but would like to expand military operations, believes Obama doesn't need to seek congressional authority to attack terrorist targets within Iraq and Syria. “But if I was him, I’d probably come and get it," he said in an interview last week. "If he asked for a new [authorization], it probably would pass overwhelmingly."

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who has spent most of his career focused on national security and foreign affairs, said that Obama should be seeking blanket authority to target any entity seeking to strike Western targets. He noted that some of the first U.S. airstrikes last week targeted the obscure al-Qaeda-linked Khorasan group even though few in Congress had ever heard of the organization or its plans to attack Western targets.

In an interview last week, Wolf referred to several terrorist groups that still pose a threat to the United States and allies. "Al-Shabab and al-Qaeda and ISIL are all in touch with each other," he said, using one of several acronyms referring to the Islamic State. "And al-Shabab was the one that did the attack on the shopping mall in Kenya. And everyone was all worked up a few months ago on Boko Haram," the group that has abducted hundreds of young women in Nigeria. "They’re all in it together, and my real concern is that what the administration asked for and all that Congress did dealt only with ISIL."

Reflecting a lack of urgency on the issue, there have been no formal talks on a new war debate between Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) or among the leaders of the House and Senate committees overseeing war planning and national security, according to several lawmakers and top aides. That's partly because leaders in both parties don't want the the last five weeks of campaigning for the midterm elections to be consumed by a military debate.

More than a week since Congress made its earliest exit from Capitol Hill to the campaign trail in about five decades, rank-and-file members of both parties eager for a debate have floated proposals on how to proceed. Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), are working on several proposals and expect to take the lead on the Senate's debate during the lame-duck session, according to several aides familiar with the talks.

Others, like Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), are trying to build support for a short-term authorization that also would sunset the 2001 and 2002 resolutions that granted authority for attacks against al-Qaeda and for war in Iraq. "I think the escalation of our attacks into Syria will only magnify the calls in Congress. And I would fully expect that we’ll have that during the lame-duck session," he said last week.

But there's been no serious discussions among top congressional leaders about merging myriad proposals into a single resolution, meaning that competing plans are likely to spark a protracted fight on the issue if a debate is ever held.

“Nobody has anything definitive,” Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview last week. Asked whether he sensed a lack of resolve among his colleagues to act, Smith said: “I think that’s probably true, yes.”

“It’s not about us not wanting to communicate, just the difficulty of the issue,” he added.

Smith said that he's had preliminary talks with top Democratic leaders, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), about working together on a joint proposal, but that the details of a resolution are still far off.

Hoyer, who supported Obama’s plans to begin training and equipping pro-western Syria rebel forces, warned in an interview Friday that the issue is likely to splinter Congress across partisan lines.

“This is going to be very, very difficult, and one of the reasons is that one person’s perspective of a proposal will be that it’s too broad and another person’s will be that it’s too narrow,” he said. "I think there’s a consensus among the American people that we need to confront ISIL and that ISIL provides a threat to our own national security. But sorting out how to do it will be difficult.”

Jaime Fuller contributed to this report.

UPDATE: This item has been updated to better reflect Boehner's comments to the New York Times.