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.