White House, Lawmakers Consult Over Syria

Following a teleconference call involving President Obama's top advisers and an expanded group of senior lawmakers to provide an update on Syria, several members of Congress maintained support for U.S. military action in response to a purported Syrian chemical weapons attack last week.

House Foreign Affairs Ranking Democrat Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., revealed that the president's national security team "said that [Obama] is still weighing his options" as consultations with Congress continue.

"The White House made very clear that it is beyond a doubt that chemical weapons were used, and used intentionally by the Assad regime," Engel said. "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. The president's team agrees that this type of action cannot go without consequences."

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The call, which did not include President Obama, lasted approximately 90 minutes and included 26 lawmakers comprised of senior congressional leadership and the chairmen and ranking members of key national security committees.

White House officials participating in the call included 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 James Winnefeld.

"The views of Congress are important to the president's decision-making process," the White House wrote in a readout of the briefing. "We will continue to engage with members [of Congress] 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."

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Sen. Jim Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the administration "failed to lay out a single option" or provide a timeline or strategy to deal with Syria.

Still, other lawmakers called on the president to go forward with a military strike.

"While I'm opposed to American boots on the ground in Syria, I would support surgical, proportional military strikes given the strong evidence of the Assad regime's continued use of chemical warfare," Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a statement after the briefing. "Whatever limited action is taken should not further commit the U.S. in Syria beyond the current strategy to strengthen the vetted, moderate opposition."

"The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime requires a decisive response," said Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. "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."

Menendez, D-N.J., said Thursday night's briefing "reaffirmed for me that a decisive and consequential U.S. response is justified and warranted to protect Syrians" and would "send a global message that chemical weapons attacks in violation of international law will not stand."

"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," he added.

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Although the United Kingdom has decided not to participate in military engagement with Syria, Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that during the teleconference Thursday night he encouraged the president to continue 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" and that the U.S. should "seek international support for limited, targeted strikes."

Though President Obama did not participate in the expanded briefing, he personally phoned House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier Thursday, and connected with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday to confer on the status of deliberations over Syria. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did not answer inquiries about whether the president placed a call to Reid, as well.

According to a spokesman, Boehner "sought answers" to concerns he outlined in a letter to the president Wednesday, "including the legal justification for any military strike, the policy and precedent such a response would set, and the objectives and strategy for any potential action."

"Only the president can answer these questions, and it is clear that further dialogue and consultation with Congress, as well as communication with the American public, will be needed," Brendan Buck, spokesman to Boehner, wrote in a brief statement after the call with the president earlier Wednesday.

Through a spokesman, Boehner declined to comment on the teleconference briefing Thursday night.

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