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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 BoehnerPrinciples to unify America Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats Obama on bipartisanship: 'There is a way to reach out and not be a sap' 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 KerryOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Kerry says Paris climate deal alone 'is not enough' | EPA halts planned Taiwan trip for Wheeler| EPA sued over rule extending life of toxic coal ash ponds Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far Intercept DC bureau chief says Biden picks are 'same people' from Obama years MORE, Secretary of Defense Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelFormer Republican national security officials demand GOP leaders denounce Trump's refusal to concede election Republicans who could serve in a Biden government How a tied Senate could lead a divided America MORE, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Sandy Winnefeld.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWhitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee Bottom line Bottom line MORE (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellImmigration, executive action top Biden preview of first 100 days Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight McConnell pushed Trump to nominate Barrett on the night of Ginsburg's death: report 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 CorkerGOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics Former GOP senator: Republicans cannot let Trump's 'reckless' post-election claims stand Cornyn: Relationships with Trump like 'women who get married and think they're going to change their spouse' 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 LevinFive House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet Michigan to pay 0M to victims of Flint water crisis Unintended consequences of killing the filibuster 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) MenendezDemocrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff Democratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Trump appointee sparks bipartisan furor for politicizing media agency 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 BoehnerPrinciples to unify America Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats Obama on bipartisanship: 'There is a way to reach out and not be a sap' 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 DurbinDick DurbinWhitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience Durbin seeks to become top-ranking Democrat on Judiciary panel MORE, D-IL, Assistant Majority Leader and Chairman, Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense

· Senator John CornynJohn CornynCornyn says election outcome 'becoming increasingly clear': report Top GOP senator: Biden should be getting intel briefings GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results MORE, R-TX, Republican Whip

· Representative Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorSpanberger's GOP challenger raises over .8 million in third quarter The Hill's Campaign Report: Florida hangs in the balance Eric Cantor teams up with former rival Dave Brat in supporting GOP candidate in former district MORE, R-VA, Majority Leader

· Representative Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, Majority Whip

· Representative Steny Hoyer, D-MD, Democratic Whip

· Senator Charles SchumerChuck SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE, D-NY, Democratic Conference Committee Vice Chair

· Senator Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiForeign policy congressional committees need to call more women experts Lobbying World Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE, D-MD, Chair, Appropriations Committee

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

· Senator Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezDemocrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff Democratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Trump appointee sparks bipartisan furor for politicizing media agency MORE, D-NJ, Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee

· Senator Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinWhitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience Durbin seeks to become top-ranking Democrat on Judiciary panel MORE, D-CA, Chair, Select Committee on Intelligence

· Senator James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeHouse Democrats back slower timeline for changing Confederate base names Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee Overnight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake' MORE, R-OK, Ranking Member, Armed Services Committee

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

· Senator Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissFight for Senate majority boils down to Georgia Lobbying world GOP lobbyist tapped for White House legislative affairs MORE, R-GA, Ranking Member, Select Committee on Intelligence

· Senator Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience Durbin seeks to become top-ranking Democrat on Judiciary panel Feinstein to step down as top Democrat on Judiciary Committee MORE, D-VT, Chairman, Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

· Senator Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSpokesperson says Tennessee Democrat made 'poor analogy' in saying South Carolina voters have extra chromosome Former Graham challenger Jaime Harrison launches political action committee The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience MORE, R-SC, Ranking Member, Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

· Senator Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranAlabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Hyde-Smith fends off challenge from Espy in Mississippi Obama endorses Espy in Mississippi Senate race 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 GrangerGOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics Bottom line GOP women's group rolls out six-figure campaign for Ernst 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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