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 BoehnerBoehner says it's Democrats' turn for a Tea Party movement House Republicans find silver lining in minority Alaskan becomes longest serving Republican in House history 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 KerryJam-packed primary poses a serious threat to Democrats in 2020 Romney helps GOP look for new path on climate change Biden leads CNN poll, but Harris, Sanders on the rise MORE, Secretary of Defense Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Energy: EPA moves to raise ethanol levels in gasoline | Dems look to counter White House climate council | Zinke cleared of allegations tied to special election Democrats offer legislation to counter White House climate science council Dozens of ex-officials warn Trump against White House panel on climate change MORE, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Sandy Winnefeld.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid slams Comey for Russia election meddling Suicide is not just a veteran problem — it is an American problem The Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game MORE (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Dems look for traction following Barr-Mueller findings Senate GOP eyes probes into 2016 issues 'swept under the rug' Senate gears up for Green New Deal vote 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 CorkerTrump keeps tight grip on GOP Brexit and exit: A transatlantic comparison Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger 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.”

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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 LevinCarl Milton LevinListen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home House Democrats poised to set a dangerous precedent with president’s tax returns The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — White House to 'temporarily reinstate' Acosta's press pass after judge issues order | Graham to take over Judiciary panel | Hand recount for Florida Senate race 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) MenendezThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison Acting Defense chief calls Graham an 'ally' after tense exchange William Barr is right man for the times 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 BoehnerBoehner says it's Democrats' turn for a Tea Party movement House Republicans find silver lining in minority Alaskan becomes longest serving Republican in House history 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 DurbinSenate GOP eyes probes into 2016 issues 'swept under the rug' Senate gears up for Green New Deal vote Senate Dems petition Saudi king to release dissidents, US citizen MORE, D-IL, Assistant Majority Leader and Chairman, Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense

· Senator John CornynJohn CornynConservatives wage assault on Mueller report Senate GOP poised to go 'nuclear' on Trump picks GOP rep to introduce constitutional amendment to limit Supreme Court seats to 9 MORE, R-TX, Republican Whip

· Representative Eric CantorEric Ivan Cantor737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington House Republicans find silver lining in minority Top-level turnover sparks questions about Chamber MORE, R-VA, Majority Leader

· Representative Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, Majority Whip

· Representative Steny Hoyer, D-MD, Democratic Whip

· Senator Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis Schumer4 in 5 Americans say they support net neutrality: poll GOP senator: Trump's criticism of McCain 'deplorable' Schumer to introduce bill naming Senate office building after McCain amid Trump uproar MORE, D-NY, Democratic Conference Committee Vice Chair

· Senator Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiRaskin embraces role as constitutional scholar Bottom Line Listen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home MORE, D-MD, Chair, Appropriations Committee

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

· Senator Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison Acting Defense chief calls Graham an 'ally' after tense exchange William Barr is right man for the times MORE, D-NJ, Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee

· Senator Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Dems look for traction following Barr-Mueller findings Senate GOP eyes probes into 2016 issues 'swept under the rug' Top Senate Judiciary Dem asks Barr to hand over full Mueller report by April 1 MORE, D-CA, Chair, Select Committee on Intelligence

· Senator James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeThe Hill's Morning Report - Dems look to rebuild 'blue wall' Funding caps, border wall set stage for defense budget battle Trump's claims of defeating ISIS roil Congress MORE, R-OK, Ranking Member, Armed Services Committee

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

· Senator Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissEx-House Intel chair: Intel panel is wrong forum to investigate Trump's finances The Hill's Morning Report - Trump budget reignites border security fight Senate buzz grows for Abrams after speech electrifies Dems MORE, R-GA, Ranking Member, Select Committee on Intelligence

· Senator Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyTop Senate Dem to Trump: It would be a 'grave mistake' to follow in Richard Nixon's footsteps Booker takes early lead in 2020 endorsements Hillicon Valley: Mueller delivers report, ending investigation | FEMA exposed info of 2.3M disaster survivors | Facebook asks judge to toss DC privacy lawsuit | Trump picks his first CTO | FCC settles lawsuit over net neutrality records MORE, D-VT, Chairman, Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

· Senator Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Dems look for traction following Barr-Mueller findings Senate GOP eyes probes into 2016 issues 'swept under the rug' Top Senate Judiciary Dem asks Barr to hand over full Mueller report by April 1 MORE, R-SC, Ranking Member, Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

· Senator Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTop 5 races to watch in 2019 Bottom Line Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy 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 GrangerOn The Money: Trump issues first veto, warning of 'reckless' resolution | US hits Russia with new sanctions | Dems renew push for contractor back pay | Lawmakers seek probe into undocumented workers at Trump businesses House Dems renew push for government contractor back pay The Hill's Morning Report — Cohen testimony turns up heat on Trump associates 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.

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