With chemical weapons allegations, Syrian conundrum shifts

The Obama administration has struggled for more than two years over what to do in Syria.

Now it's Congress's turn.

The White House's Ben Rhodes made it clear Thursday that the president will be “consulting” with lawmakers over the coming weeks to determine what kind of “military support” to provide to the opposition after concluding that Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces have used chemical weapons. If he follows through, Obama will find that while lawmakers may still be collectively smarting from his decision to sidestep them in Libya two years ago, they're all over the map when it comes to Syria.

The two leading Senate hawks, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senator suspending campaign fundraising, donating paycheck amid coronavirus pandemic Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much Juan Williams: Biden's promises on women are a big deal MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham asks colleagues to support call for China to close wet markets Justice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court Trump says he's considering restricting travel to coronavirus 'hot spots' MORE (R-S.C.), rushed to the Senate floor on Thursday to demand the president establish a no-fly zone. Well aware of the public's lack of appetite for another military adventure, McCain put the onus on Obama — who was elected as an anti-war candidate — to make the case to the American people.

“The president of the United States needs to go tell the American people why we need to take the action that I am advocating,” McCain said on CNN. “This is erupting into a regional conflict where the United States' vital interests are at stake.”

But even many of McCain's own colleagues aren't convinced.

While 15 senators on the Senate Foreign Relations panel cleared legislation to arm the rebels last month, three others — two Democrats and a Republican — voted "no." And Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidGOP embraces big stimulus after years of decrying it Five Latinas who could be Biden's running mate Winners and losers from Super Tuesday MORE (D-Nev.) has shown no inclination of taking up the bill anytime soon.

One of those “no” votes was libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGeorgia governor says he didn't know asymptomatic people could spread coronavirus McConnell: Impeachment distracted government from coronavirus threat Warren knocks McConnell for forcing in-person Senate vote amid coronavirus pandemic MORE (R-Ky.), a 2016 presidential hopeful whose appeal has only grown with the recent revelations about National Security Agency data-mining. Paul went so far as to suggest his colleagues were siding with al Qaeda, since Sunni extremists are among the forces battling Assad.

In the House, a spokesman for Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerMeadows joins White House in crisis mode Meadows set to resign from Congress as he moves to White House The Pelosi administration MORE (R-Ohio) on Thursday called on Obama to work with Congress.

“It is long past time to bring the Assad regime’s bloodshed in Syria to an end,” said Brendan Buck. “As President Obama examines his options, it is our hope he will properly consult with Congress before taking any action.”

In reality, though, BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerMeadows joins White House in crisis mode Meadows set to resign from Congress as he moves to White House The Pelosi administration MORE's House Republicans may well be the most divided group in the entire Congress on the issue.

Intelligence panel Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) was the first to sign on to Rep. Eliot Engel's (D-N.Y.) bill authorizing weapons for the rebels back in March. The bill only has five co-sponsors, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) has yet to schedule a markup, despite vowing to do so.

“I support the president’s decision to expand assistance for the vetted Syrian opposition,” Royce said Thursday, “and I encourage the administration to begin, in earnest, arming the Free Syrian Army.”

Others, particularly the toughest critics of radical Islam, have made their concerns clear.

“Unfortunately, to a large extent, al Qaeda elements have a lot of control within the rebel movements,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN last month. “My concern is that, by arming the rebels, we could be strengthening al Qaeda.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Royce's predecessor as chairman and a leading pro-Israel hawk, shared similar concerns during a hearing on Syria in March, just after Engel had announced his bill.

“While I respect the opinion of my colleagues, I sincerely do not believe that it is time for the U.S. to arm the rebels,” she said. “Too many questions remain about who the rebels are and with whom they will swear allegiance. The unknown can be dangerous, and the vetting of the opposition is not enough when it comes to providing lethal aid that could be used against our allies, such as Israel, or the United States in a post-Assad era.”

Others have called for a unified U.S. position on the issue — with little chance of getting heard.

“We have a lot of issues on the table, and we’ve got to get it right,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, told ABC in April. “But, I believe very strongly, we have to do it as a — as a team.”

--Justin Sink contributed to this report.