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As Iraq Splits GOP, Boehner Stays Firm

At a time when Republicans on both sides of the Capitol are starting to go wobbly on supporting President Bush’s war strategy in Iraq, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has become the leading voice for staying the course, repeatedly rallying his Conference to stand firm.

Recent statements by Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and other prominent Republicans calling for a reduced commitment to the Iraq War haven’t swayed Boehner’s determination to stand foursquare behind Bush.

Boehner said in an interview Wednesday that his continued support for the war and the surge has its roots in tepid responses to terrorist acts in the 1990s. “Basically we just ignored the threat,” he said.

“Most people just want this to go away, but al-Qaida is not going to go away. This global jihadist movement is growing all over the world and at some point you have to draw the line and say you are not going to take it any more.”

Unlike Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has said he expects reductions in troop levels starting this fall, Boehner has eschewed such speculation.

Boehner has been more vehement in his support for the president than other House GOP leaders have. He teared up in an impassioned speech defending the war on the House floor last month, and he initially resisted proposals from House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) for “benchmarks with consequences” for the Iraqi government as part of the war-funding bill. Democrats ultimately agreed to include benchmarks with potential consequences for development aid but allowed the president to waive any restrictions.

Boehner wouldn’t address Lugar’s comments directly — saying, “It is what it is” — but he criticized Members in general on both sides of the aisle for comments critical of the war effort. “They think they’re talking to their neighbor, but what they say is heard all over the world. I think it’s very dangerous,” he said.

Boehner added that he’s also concerned that withdrawing from Iraq could make matters worse.

“The consequences of failure in Iraq are enormous. It’d destabilize Iraq, it provides a safe haven for al-Qaida, encourages their ability to recruit around the world,” Boehner said. “Then you look at the whole situation with Iran and you put a big bull’s-eye on Israel’s forehead, and if that’s not bad enough, who doesn’t believe they won’t follow us home?”

Boehner and other House Republican leaders are confident that they can continue to hold the line against Democratic efforts to set withdrawal dates, at least until September when Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus’ report to Congress is due.

“I think we need to give Gen. Petraeus a chance to succeed,” Boehner said. “We’re going to know a lot more then than we know now.”

House Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), one of the most hawkish members of the Conference, noted that Boehner gets the weekly intelligence briefings and therefore understands better than most the threat.

“He fully understands that we need to defeat radical jihadism. … He’s seen the sensitive information and he knows how dangerous the threat is,” Hoekstra said.

Hoekstra said Boehner understands that there is unease within the Republicans ranks and he’s working hard behind the scenes.

“John has held this Conference together,” Hoekstra said. “He’s working it hard.”

Hoekstra said while some Republicans are growing unhappy with the war policy, that doesn’t mean they will join with Democratic efforts for withdrawal dates.

“I think the problem with the Democrats is Republicans can’t go where Democrats are. … I don’t think you’re going to find many Republicans who say this is a bumper-sticker war, that it’s not a real threat,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, don’t plan to sit by and give Republicans a free pass until September.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said Wednesday that Lugar’s comments helped show the “light at the end of the tunnel” on Iraq.

“On Monday, Senator Lugar said President Bush’s plan to escalate the war in Iraq has ‘very limited’ prospects for success and called on President Bush to begin to reduce U.S. forces,” Emanuel said. “Exactly what Democrats have been saying all along. … Starting in July, we will put the administration and the Republicans to the test. A new direction in Iraq or more of the same of the present force? Vote after vote.”

Boehner shrugged off the looming challenge. “In July, as [Rep. David] Obey [D-Wis.] would say, a lot of Members will be posing for holy pictures, but in September is when the real decisions will be made.”

But Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, said the momentum continues to be toward withdrawal, pointing to Lugar’s comments and others. “The question isn’t whether we’re going to redeploy, it’s when,” he said, adding that Boehner wouldn’t be able to prevent it from happening.

“It’s going to come around whatever he says or thinks,” Murtha said.