Unclassified Syria briefing exposes rifts among key lawmakers

Thursday night's briefing by top Obama administration officials exposed divisions among key lawmakers on what to do in Syria. 

Lawmakers on the unclassified conference call said the officials made it clear that President Obama is still weighing his options but believes “beyond a doubt” that Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces used chemical weapons “intentionally” in an attack last week that rebels say killed more than 1,000 people.

They left convinced that Assad's forces were responsible for using chemical weapons, and that Obama should respond. But they were split on the timeline, with some calling for an immediate and forceful response while others said the president must make his case to the American people.

"The views of Congress are important to the President’s decision-making process," the White House said in a statement after the call, "and we will continue to engage with Members as the President reaches a decision on the appropriate U.S. response to the Syrian government’s violation of international norms against the use of chemical weapons."

More than 25 lawmakers, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the leaders of the House and Senate national security panels were on the 90-minute call, according to the White House. They were briefed by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Sandy Winnefeld.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the leaders of the House and Senate Homeland Security panels did not participate in the call. [See a list of lawmakers on the call below.]

“While the administration has engaged in congressional consultation,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), “they should continue to be forthcoming with information and would be far better off if they seek authorization based upon our national interests, which would provide the kind of public debate and legitimacy that can only come from Congress.”

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The call from the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations comes as 140 House members have signed on to a letter to President Obama demanding that Congress authorize any action. Images of the British parliament voting against action on Thursday further fueled calls for U.S. lawmakers to stake their ground on U.S. foreign policy.

Obama, House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said after the briefing, still needs to make his case to Congress and the American people. 

An aide to McKeon told The Hill that McKeon was "disappointed" the president was not personally involved in the conversation with congressional leaders Thursday surrounding possibly military action.

The aide said the administration officials told lawmakers they would be returning to Congress with a funding request if action was taken.

Senate Armed Serviced Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said United Nations inspectors should be given the time to finish gathering evidence.

“I appreciate the administration’s continuing efforts tonight to consult with Congress about the situation in Syria, and its commitment to further consultations with Congress,” Levin said. 

“I have previously called for the United States to work with our friends and allies to increase the military pressure on the Assad regime by providing lethal aid to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I suggested that we should do so while U.N. inspectors complete their work and while we seek international support for limited, targeted strikes in response to the Assad regime’s large-scale use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people.”

Others reiterated their calls for an immediate response.

“The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime requires a decisive response,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). “Our national security interests, those of our allies, and regional stability are at risk as Syria is disintegrating into a failed state. This is not a moment to look the other way, to blind ourselves to the horrifying images in Syria, and to send the dangerous message to the global community that we would allow the use of a chemical weapons attack to take place with impunity.

“Vulnerable populations throughout the world, as well as some of our allies, and potentially even our Armed Forces could be future targets if we don’t respond. Tonight’s briefing reaffirmed for me that a decisive and consequential U.S. response is justified and warranted to protect Syrians, as well as to send a global message that chemical weapons attacks in violation of international law will not stand.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel, agreed. 

“I agree with the president that the use of these weapons not only violates international norms, but is a national security threat to the United States,” Engel said. “The president's team agrees that this type of action cannot go without consequences.”

"On the call, I agreed with Speaker Boehner and other Members who stated that there needs to be more consultation with all Members of Congress and additional transparency into the decision making process and timing, and that the case needs to be made to the American people," Pelosi  said in a statement.

"It is clear that the American people are weary of war," Pelosi said. "However, Assad gassing his own people is an issue of our national security, regional stability and global security. We must be clear that the United States rejects the use of chemical weapons by Assad or any other regime.

"What Assad has done is outside the realm of basic human rights. On this evening’s call, I expressed my appreciation for the measured, targeted and limited approach the President may be considering.

"We were assured during the call there would be ongoing consultation with Congress," she added.

Members of Congress participating in the briefing included:

· Speaker John Boehner, R-OH

· Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA

· Senator Dick Durbin, D-IL, Assistant Majority Leader and Chairman, Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense

· Senator John Cornyn, R-TX, Republican Whip

· Representative Eric Cantor, R-VA, Majority Leader

· Representative Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, Majority Whip

· Representative Steny Hoyer, D-MD, Democratic Whip

· Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, Democratic Conference Committee Vice Chair

· Senator Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, Chair, Appropriations Committee

· Senator Carl Levin, D-MI, Chairman, Armed Services Committee

· Senator Robert Menendez, D-NJ, Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee

· Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, Chair, Select Committee on Intelligence

· Senator James Inhofe, R-OK, Ranking Member, Armed Services Committee

· Senator Bob Corker, R-TN, Ranking Member, Foreign Relations Committee

· Senator Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, Ranking Member, Select Committee on Intelligence

· Senator Patrick Leahy, D-VT, Chairman, Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

· Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC, Ranking Member, Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

· Senator Thad Cochran, R-MS, Ranking Member, Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense

· Representative Bill Young, R-FL, Chairman, Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense

· Representative Ed Royce, R-CA, Chairman, Foreign Affairs Committee

· Representative Mike Rogers, R-MI, Chairman, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

· Representative Nita Lowey, D-NY, Ranking Member Appropriations Committee and Ranking Member, Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

· Representative Buck McKeon, R-CA, Chairman, Armed Services Committee

· Representative Eliot Engel, D-NY, Ranking Member, Foreign Affairs Committee

· Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, D-MD, Ranking Member, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

· Representative Kay Granger, R-TX, Chair, Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

--Source: White House

--This report was updated at 9:38 p.m.

--Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.

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