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White House Presents Syria Case to Congressional Leaders on Conference Call

WASHINGTON — With a Congress scattered across the country on recess but wary about what the U.S. will do to punish Syria after the crossing of the chemical weapons red line, President Obama’s national security team pulled lawmakers onto a conference call tonight to discuss the evidence and the path forward.

The call, hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, just covered unclassified information, though, as it was held on an unsecured line.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said Obama’s national security team “said that he is still weighing his options and will continue to consult with Congress.”

“The White House made very clear that it is beyond a doubt that chemical weapons were used, and used intentionally by the Assad regime. 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.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he earlier received a separate classified briefing on the Syria intelligence.

“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. Whatever limited action is taken should not further commit the U.S. in Syria beyond the current strategy to strengthen the vetted, moderate opposition,” said Corker after the call.

“While the administration has engaged in congressional consultation, 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.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) noted he has “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 UN 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,” Levin said. “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.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said after the call that “the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime requires a decisive response.”

“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,” Menendez said. “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.”

More than two dozen Senate and House leaders as well as certain committee leaders participated in the conference call, which lasted 90 minutes. Fifteen members asked questions of the administration officials.

In a readout, the White House characterized the call as “building on extensive Cabinet Member outreach to Congress over the past week.”

“The views of Congress are important to the President’s decision-making process, 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,” the White House said.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said yesterday that she was briefed on the attack by the intelligence community and believes “the intelligence points to an attack by the Assad government, not the opposition.”

“There is no more heinous act than the killing of innocent civilians with poison gas—including young children sleeping in their beds—and these actions cannot be condoned,” Feinstein. “While the Obama administration continues to evaluate its options, I urge the UN Security Council to strongly condemn the Assad regime.”

Her Republican counterpart, ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), offered the same assessment.

“Based on available intelligence, there can be no doubt the Assad regime is responsible for using chemical weapons on the Syrian people,” Chambliss said. “It is time for the United States to act in a serious way, and send a clear message to Assad and his allies that the world will not tolerate chemical or biological attacks. Continuing to do nothing is not an option. Short of putting troops on the ground, I believe a meaningful military response is appropriate.”

Much of the administration’s evidence reportedly has come from Israeli intelligence, including intercepts of conversations of Syrian officials talking about the chemical weapons.

The five permanent members of the Security Council met today but, not surprisingly, failed to reach an agreement on how to deal with Syria as two of those veto-wielding members, Russia and China, are allies of President Bashar al-Assad.

There was also difficultly reaching agreement in the House of Commons today as Prime Minister David Cameron narrowly lost a vote, 272-285, on a measure that supported in principle military intervention in Syria.

Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) today wrapped up his letter to Obama urging the commander in chief to come seek authorization from Congress before any Syria strikes with 140 signatories: 119 Republicans and 21 Democrats.

“While the Founders wisely gave the Office of the President the authority to act in emergencies, they foresaw the need to ensure public debate — and the active engagement of Congress — prior to committing U.S. military assets,” the letter states. “Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.”

House liberals launched their own letter to Obama, led by antiwar Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

“While we understand that as Commander in Chief you have a constitutional obligation to protect our national interests from direct attack, Congress has the constitutional obligation and power to approve military force, even if the United States or its direct interests (such as its embassies) have not been attacked or threatened with an attack. As such, we strongly urge you to seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis,” states the letter, with 53 Democratic co-signers.

“We must learn the lessons of the past. Lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and others. We must recognize that what happens in Syria does not stay in Syria; the implications for the region are dire,” said Lee. “This letter is calling for a specific action: debate. Congress has a vital role this in this process and constitutional power that must be respected. The American people are demanding this debate before we commit our military, our money, or our forces to Syria.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CNN this evening that we’re watching Syria “evolve into one of the great humanitarian tragedies in history.”

Of the chemical weapons, McCain said Assad’s previous, smaller uses of these agents was evidence enough. “We know he’s already used them, so why wouldn’t he use them again in larger quantities?” he said.