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 BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE (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 KerryJohn Forbes KerryFeehery: Oprah Dem presidential bid unlikely Dem hopefuls flock to Iowa Change in Iran will only come from its people — not the United States MORE, Secretary of Defense Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelHagel: Trump is 'an embarrassment' Tax cut complete, hawks push for military increase Pentagon documents hundreds of serious misconduct cases against top brass MORE, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Sandy Winnefeld.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems search for winning playbook Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response The Memo: Immigration battle tests activists’ muscle MORE (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Overnight Finance: Lawmakers see shutdown odds rising | Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans | Consumer bureau moves to revise payday lending rule | Trump warns China on trade deficit MORE (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 CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSenate campaign fundraising reports roll in Congress should take the lead on reworking a successful Iran deal North Korea tensions ease ahead of Winter Olympics MORE (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.”

ADVERTISEMENT
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 LevinCarl LevinCongress: The sleeping watchdog Congress must not give companies tax reasons to move jobs overseas A lesson on abuse of power by Obama and his Senate allies MORE (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 MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezCongress must provide flexible funding for owners of repeatedly flooded properties Senate ethics panel resumes Menendez probe after judge declares mistrial Judge declares mistrial in Menendez bribery case MORE (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 BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE 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 DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ Ex-Sheriff David Clarke: Trump only one who 'cares about black American citizens' DHS chief takes heat over Trump furor MORE, D-IL, Assistant Majority Leader and Chairman, Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense

· Senator John CornynJohn CornynMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Hoyer suggests Dems won't support spending bill without DACA fix MORE, R-TX, Republican Whip

· Representative Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorEric Cantor: Moore ‘deserves to lose’ If we want to make immigration great again, let's make it bipartisan Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns MORE, R-VA, Majority Leader

· Representative Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, Majority Whip

· Representative Steny Hoyer, D-MD, Democratic Whip

· Senator Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration White House: Trump remarks didn't derail shutdown talks Schumer defends Durbin after GOP senator questions account of Trump meeting MORE, D-NY, Democratic Conference Committee Vice Chair

· Senator Barbara MikulskiBarbara MikulskiClinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns Gore wishes Mikulski a happy birthday at 'Inconvenient Sequel' premiere MORE, D-MD, Chair, Appropriations Committee

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

· Senator Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezCongress must provide flexible funding for owners of repeatedly flooded properties Senate ethics panel resumes Menendez probe after judge declares mistrial Judge declares mistrial in Menendez bribery case MORE, D-NJ, Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee

· Senator Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Democrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration MORE, D-CA, Chair, Select Committee on Intelligence

· Senator James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeEPA's Pruitt: Bring back 'true environmentalism' Tax cut complete, hawks push for military increase Trump meets with oil-state GOP senators on ethanol mandate MORE, R-OK, Ranking Member, Armed Services Committee

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

· Senator Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLobbying World Former GOP senator: Let Dems engage on healthcare bill OPINION: Left-wing politics will be the demise of the Democratic Party MORE, R-GA, Ranking Member, Select Committee on Intelligence

· Senator Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle McConnell to Dems: Don't hold government 'hostage' over DACA Nielsen acknowledges Trump used 'tough language' in immigration meeting MORE, D-VT, Chairman, Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

· Senator Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House MORE, R-SC, Ranking Member, Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

· Senator Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTrump's chief agricultural negotiator will fight for American farmers Rep. Cummings hospitalized, wife suspends gubernatorial campaign Medical cannabis community must join together and resist any action taken against us MORE, 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 GrangerNorvell (Kay) Kay GrangerSeven Texas lawmakers leaving Congress means a younger, more diverse delegation House passes .5 billion disaster relief package GOP lawmaker: No town halls because of threats against lawmakers MORE, 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.

Please send tips and comments to Julian Pecquet: jpecquet@thehill.com

Follow us on Twitter: @TheHillGlobal and @JPecquetTheHill