WASHINGTON – The Republican leader of the U.S. House of Representatives voiced support on Thursday for President Barack Obama’s expanded campaign against Islamic State militants, but members of his party questioned whether the plan to rely mainly on airstrikes and arming Syrian rebels was forceful enough.
Obama sent a panel of top administration officials to the Capitol to make the case to the U.S. Congress for broadening operations against the Sunni militants, including U.S. air strikes in Syria for the first time and more military advisers in Iraq.
In a televised address on Wednesday night, the Democratic president declared he would lead an alliance to root out Islamic State, plunging the United States into two conflicts in which nearly every country in the Middle East has a stake.
The White House argued that Obama does not need Congress’ formal authorization for the effort, but they want legislators’ support to show a united front both against opponents and to other nations asked to become allies.
House Speaker John Boehner said Obama had made a “compelling case for action” but said the president must provide Republicans with more details about his strategy. “It’s important to give the president what he has asked for,” he told a news conference.
Congress’ Republican leaders generally supported Obama’s plans but must work to unite various factions within their party, including members deeply skeptical of Obama’s leadership and spending plans and others who want the United States to cut back sharply on foreign military involvement.
Boehner said Republican House members have doubts about whether Obama’s plan can accomplish his mission of destroying a militant group whose fighters have killed thousands of people in recent months.
“An F-16 is not a strategy. And airstrikes alone will not accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish. The president’s made clear that he doesn’t want boots on the ground, well somebody’s boots have to be on the ground,” the Ohio representative said.
Islamic State is a Sunni group that embraces a radical vision of a Middle East ruled along 7th century precepts. Its fighters are battling a Shiite-led government in Iraq and a Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad, a follower of an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has won support from 10 Arab countries for a “coordinated military campaign” against the militants.
Boehner said no decision had been made on how the House might vote on Obama’s request for authorization and $500 million in funding to arm and train moderate rebels waging a three-year-long war against Assad.
A spokesman said the White House would like Congress to include the authorization in a bill to fund government operations, called a continuing resolution, that is expected to pass next week.
The Syrian rebels are seen as a moderate counterpart to both Islamic State and Assad’s government, but lawmakers harbor doubts about the rebels.
“There’s a real question as to whether we have a Free Syrian Army and most of the reports I’ve read … show so many different groups and not a high reliability,” Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who chairs the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, told reporters.
Administration officials see the vote as crucial to its efforts to build an international coalition. But the timing is tricky, as such a move could be seen as a “war vote” by a war-weary public, just two months before congressional elections.
Any vote to authorize military action could prove especially tough for Democrats, whose liberal base tends to be wary of war, as the party tries to maintain a slim U.S. Senate majority on Nov. 4.
Many Republicans, aiming to capture control of both houses of Congress, have long criticized the administration for failing to take action sooner.
The beheadings in August and early September of two U.S. journalists who were held hostage by Islamic State militants increased public support for action and coalesced backing from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
“When you cut Americans’ heads off in public … we’re going to stand up and we’re going to protect America, and we’re going to go after you until we bring you to justice and stop you,” Maryland Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters.
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