Updated 9:51 p.m. | The White House told Capitol Hill leaders Thursday night that more congressional consultation on Syria would be needed — particularly when it comes to paying for what now seems to be an imminent operation.
In a 90-minute phone call between various administration officials and House and Senate leaders, as well as relevant committee chairmen and ranking members, 15 members of Congress asked questions of the assembled White House officials.
“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 readout of the call from the White House said.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Sandy Winnefeld, and White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice were all on the call.
As the White House attempts to dampen criticism over its lack of congressional consultation for a potential conflict in Syria, the unclassified briefing for House and Senate leaders was intended to update congressional leaders on the latest deliberations on Syria.
Eliot Engel, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the president’s national security team said Obama was “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,” the New York Democrat said. “The president’s team agrees that this type of action cannot go without consequences.”
A major takeaway Thursday night seemed to be that this was the start of congressional consultations.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she “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.”
“We were assured during the call there would be ongoing consultation with Congress,” Pelosi said in a statement.
A House Armed Services aide said Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., believed the call was a “nice beginning of consultations but cannot be the end.”
The aide also said administration officials acknowledged they would have to come to the Hill to work out how to pay for the operation.
McKeon couldn’t clearly decipher during the call what the military objective would be and how it would connect to the policy objective of deterring the future use of chemical weapons, the aide said, also noting that McKeon was “disappointed” the president was not on the call and felt Obama “should have been making the case on this.”
The chairmen of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees also offered comments after the call Thursday evening.
“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,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
Menendez called for 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,” Menendez said. “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.”
For his part, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in a statement that he called for greater international support 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.”
Other lawmakers were more critical.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, issued a statement late Thursday night that said the administration “failed to explain how they intend to effectively respond to the situation in Syria. The lack of a strategic plan and failure of leadership is evident in our country, Syria and across the globe.”
On Thursday night, British lawmakers turned back a proposal from Prime Minister David Cameron to possibly strike Syria.
It is improbable that President Barack Obama will call Congress back to authorize action in Syria, likely looking to avoid a vote that could also end in embarrassment, but more than 140 lawmakers sent Obama a letter Thursday demanding that he receive authorization before striking Syria.
The briefing Thursday night was supposed to connect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military to the use of chemical weapons and update congressional leaders on potential options.
Megan Scully and Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.