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White House officials brief congressional leaders on Syria

August 29, 2013|By Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli

WASHINGTON -- White House officials convened a briefing on Syria for congressional leaders Thursday evening, as lawmakers from both parties continued to express skepticism about taking military action without congressional authorization.

Top administration officials including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel led the nearly 90-minute conference call, an unclassified session that included intelligence on the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces in rebel-held areas of his country.

The two dozen congressional leaders were sought out “to brief them on the administration’s thinking and seek their input,” the administration said in a statement.

The conference call resulted in mixed reactions as President Obama considers the U.S. response to the alleged chemical attack in Syria last week that reportedly killed hundreds of people, many of them civilians.

“Tonight the administration failed to explain how they intend to effectively respond to the situation in Syria,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in a statement afterward.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) said he was “disappointed” the president didn’t personally address the congressional leaders.

“If the president intends to connect this directly to Assad, he needs to make that public case -- personally,” a McKeon aide said, relaying the chairman’s remarks after the session.

Several lawmakers quizzed the administration officials about the potential costs of the military campaign, an issue that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has also raised in his communications this week with Obama. The lawmakers were told the administration would likely seek additional funds from Congress, the McKeon aide said.

The conference call came after a difficult day for the Obama administration as key U.S. allies distanced themselves from military action against the Syrian government. The call participants also included James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, and Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The United States cannot be the lone sheriff of the whole world,” C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The United States must be careful in how it proceeds and must act together with a coalition of countries.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the nation’s security interests demand action.

“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,” Menendez said in a statement. “This is not a moment to look the other way.”

The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Elliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), said, "The president's national security team said that he is still weighing his options."

Obama spoke earlier in the day to both Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, who did not join the call.

The Democratic congressional leaders have also been in contact with the president. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been “briefed constantly,” an aide said, including in talks with Obama, but he did not participate in Thursday’s briefing.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the minority leader, who noted that Americans were “weary of war,” said during the call that she agreed with Boehner that there should be more consultation with Congress and transparency from the administration, and “that the case needs to be made to the American people.”

Even before the evening session began, lawmakers grumbled that it was insufficient.

Lawmakers have become increasingly vocal on the need for congressional authorization of military action, and more than 160 House lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have signed letters demanding a vote in Congress.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the administration needed to present the classified information to a wider group of lawmakers, “to get buy-in to the program, to go over the evidence.”

“I do think that when people see the evidence in a classified way, they’ll be convinced, like I was convinced,” Rogers said earlier Thursday on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”

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Twitter: @LisaMascaroinDC

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeMemoli

michael.memoli@latimes.com

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