Speaker John Boehner took the stage at a closed door meeting of the House Republican Conference on Thursday morning and summed up the stark reality facing his members: This is not the president they prefer, nor the overall military strategy they want, but it is all they have.
Boehner's reluctant endorsement of President Obama's request for a military authorization to train and equip the Free Syrian Army encapsulates the surreal situation the House Republican leaders are in. They fundamentally do not trust Obama, but they must now ask their members to support the president as the country stands on the precipice of war with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Boehner told reporters Thursday he was skeptical of the president's plan, arguing that the House Republican Conference as a whole does not believe that the strategy the president laid out Wednesday will be sufficient to eliminate ISIS. "Airstrikes alone will not accomplish what we're trying to accomplish," Boehner said, criticizing the president's decision to rule out putting boots on the ground. "Somebody's boots have to be on the ground," he said.
However, Boehner added, "At this point in time, it's important that we give the president what he is asking for."
"These conversations are going to continue over the weekend," he said.
How the conference will manage its rambunctious flock remains to be seen.
"The president's come our way—not all the way, but he's come our way on this. And the speaker wants to make sure we don't ignore that," said Rep. Dennis Ross, a senior deputy whip. "You'll see us act, but I'm not sure how we will."
After the meeting, the GOP whip team, headed by newly minted Whip Steve Scalise, met in his third-floor office to continue the discussion. But members emerging from the meeting said they do not yet know whether they will pass the authorization alone or as part of a must-pass government spending bill the House expects to take up next week. The team will fan out and gauge members' support.
Earlier in the conference-wide meeting, many members were pressing Boehner to hold a separate, stand-alone vote on Obama's request to arm pro-Western Syrian rebels, rather than mesh it with a must-pass government spending bill as the president asked.
Rep. Mark Meadows is among those in the conference who are pushing to hold a separate vote, saying the gravity of the situation necessitates decoupling the authorization from other legislation.
"I think, for most of us, we believe that this is such a critical issue, that it should be debated separately, and voted on separately," Meadows said. "I want us to be able to look at all the options, and have it as a single vote. It's one of the most critical votes we have—any time you put men and women potentially in harm's way."
Beyond the procedure, some members are anxious about the president's overall strategy, and the administration carrying it out. Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers told members in the conference meeting that the president sounded weak in his speech Wednesday night, and hesaid he pondered whether President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have listed how many actions the country would not take when announcing a call to war.
Members remain concerned about whom the administration would arm. Despite attending a classified briefing Wednesday, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said he is not yet convinced that the rebels the president wants to arm are trustworthy and that the arms we give them would stay out of the hands of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"We need to find out a little more about what the president's plans are and whether they're realistic," he said. "There's a real question as to whether we have a Free Syrian Army. And most of the reports I've read "¦ show just so many different groups, and not a high reliability that they're competent to do what" the president is asking.
Added Rep. Adam Kinzinger, "There was a really good moderate opposition three years ago. A decent one two years ago, and adequate one a year ago. But now they have been beleaguered and beaten and everything."
"Can they be rebuilt? I hope so. Even though it's a little late," said Kinzinger, who plans to support the request. "I'm sure you'll have some people that are just so concerned with what the Free Syrian Army is, they don't quite understand the depths of it and what's going on there, and so you may have some vote against it, but I think you're going to have a very large majority of Republicans and Democrats come together on this."
Others still want the president to go further. Rep. John Fleming said many see the president's strategy as not nearly enough.
"This is a stalemate strategy," he said. "I think that we would want to see an all-out war, shock and awe. We put troops on the ground, we put all of our assets there after properly prepping the battlefield, and in a matter of a few weeks we take these guys out "¦ and we leave a stay-behind force to keep our friends up and going, and also maybe a no-fly zone in Syria over the area Assad controls."
Others are worried that the situation will escalate and noted their constituents are, too. Rep. John Carter, whose Texas district includes Fort Hood and who chairs the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said he told members in the meeting that if Congress is going to commit to this strategy, it must fund the military at a higher level.
"If we're going to do this, nobody's that got any sense can think any way other than we will eventually have boots on the ground. We already have 1,500. Those people are not wearing ballet slippers over there," said Carter. "And so the reality is, if we're asking these tired, overcommitted quite patriotic families to do this some more, we've got to start reinforcing them. We've got to start building our military back, not cutting it."
That potential for escalation is also scaring many progressive Democrats. At a weekly foreign policy briefing Thursday morning hosted by the Aspen Institute, a lieutenant colonel who was part of the team that captured ousted Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein shared his experiences with a bipartisan group of about 50members of the House and Senate. Many members expressed concern that the country would become embroiled in an extended ground war, said a Democrat in the meeting.
Procedurally, whether splitting the military authorization from the spending bill might endanger passage of the Obama request is something GOP leaders are sorting out. Leaving it in would assure Democratic votes for the spending bill.
The White House has made known its preference for including the Syria authority language in the stopgap, must-pass spending bill to keep government funded beyond the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday, "I would hope it would be in the CR, because that's the train leaving the station, and the president" needs this now. Splitting them "takes longer," she added.
However, Pelosi also did not rule out that the authorization could come in "some independent vehicle." And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he is prepared to offer it as a separate measure, although procedurally, doing so would be more complicated in the Senate. A Pelosi spokesman said there are no threats to withhold Democratic votes if it the authorization is split off from the spending bill in the House.
One reason to split them, Rep. Jack Kingston said, is that "people don't want to have a vote of conscience mixed in with the Ex-Im Bank, for example."
Already attached to the spending bill is a controversial nine-month reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which many House conservatives oppose and want to shutter. The charter for the bank, which provides loans to overseas entities to buy American products, is set to expire on Oct. 1.
Democrats, including Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, are pressing for a longer renewal—years. However, Republicans leaving the meeting said the nine-month extension to June 30 was grudgingly being taken by key conservatives, including Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, as an acceptable compromise, allowing more time for members to debate and decide what ultimately to do with the bank.
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leaders did not say explicitly if the Title 10 authority should be included as part of the continuing resolution. Reid said Thursday only that he plans to wait for the House to act.
Typically eager to jab House Republicans, Reid seemed to hold back.
"I'm confident we will put our political differences aside and work together to give this administration the tools it needs to meet ISIS head on," Reid said.
Some Democrats are suggesting they want the authority included in the funding measure. That approach links the president's request to legislation that would keep the government open, and such a tack would furnish vulnerable Democrats facing reelection with a compelling reason to carry home to their constituents.
"You're suggesting we can't put it [title 10 authority] in the CR and have a separate debate on it?" said Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin when asked about decoupling the two measures. "Of course we can."
Michael Catalini, Sarah Mimms, and Rachel Roubein contributed to this article