Congressional leaders Thursday night appeared ready to back at least a limited U.S. military strike on the Syrian government following a private telephone briefing with White House officials.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and National Security Advisor Susan Rice as well as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were among the White House officials on the 90 minute call, which did not include President Obama and, due to security concerns, excluded discussions of classified material.
While classified information was lacking, lawmakers said they were assured there is solid evidence that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was behind an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack against its own people and that the United States should take action to stop its further use.
“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,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said following the call.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the panel, agreed but added that Obama should seek Congressional authorization first.
“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,” Corker said. ” 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 administration has been working to make the case to lawmakers for some kind of military attack against Syria even as more than one hundred Republicans and some Democrats are demanding the president seek official authorization from Congress for a strike.
A state department spokesperson said Thursday that the Obama has not made a decision about what actions, if any, the United States will take, or whether he would seek Congressional authorization.
“When he makes a decision, we will decide what we have to do at that point going forward,” the aide said, when asked whether a vote in congress would precede military action.
The White House, according to reports, is expected to release declassified information on Friday that provides further evidence that the Assad regime has chemical weapons and had plans to use them.
But even Obama’s staunchest allies warned against using the military against Syria without the backing of Congress or buy-in from the public, which according to polls is staunchly opposed to intervention in Syria.
“On the call, I agreed with Speaker Boehner 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,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, after the call. “It is clear that the American people are weary of war. 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.”
House Speaker John Boehner has urged president Obama to make the case to Congress and the public for a military strike, as have other Republicans.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla, who is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel, said he was the sole voice of opposition to a strike during the phone call. He issued a statement afterwards, saying the administration did not provide a strategy or a timeline for action against Syria.
Inhofe said he believes the military is too strained to take on another conflict.
“We have a starving military,” Inhofe said. “No red line should have even been drawn without first preparing a strategic plan and assessing our resources. ”
British parliament Thursday voted against taking military action against Syria amid uncertainty over the evidence that Assad was behind the chemical weapons attack and general opposition to entering a new conflict.
Both the State Department and National Security Council spokespersons said Obama would make a decision in the best interests of the United States, suggesting he might act unilaterally against Syria.
Thursday’s congressional call had a limited audience: only the top lawmakers on the committees that oversee national security were invited, as well as the Republican and Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not participate in the call, according to the White House. Fifteen lawmakers asked questions.
“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,” a post-call statement from the White House said.