WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers urged President Barack Obama on Monday to consult them as he decides how to respond to last week’s apparent poison gas attack in the Damascus suburbs, with some complaining that they have not been fully informed.
Secretary of State John Kerry issued a tough statement on Monday, saying that the suspected chemical weapons attack was a “moral obscenity” and accused Syria’s government of covering it up.
He added that the Obama administration was consulting with allies and members of Congress and would decide soon how to respond.
But some lawmakers and congressional staff members, particularly Republicans, called for more communication with Congress by the Democratic administration, even as many expressed strong support for “decisive” action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner had “preliminary communication” with the White House about the situation in Syria on Monday afternoon, said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the Republican leader.
“The Speaker made clear that before any action is taken there must be meaningful consultation with members of Congress, as well as clearly defined objectives and a broader strategy to achieve stability,” Buck said in a statement.
Republican Representative Howard McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Obama must act “decisively” on Syria and that U.S. credibility is on the line. But he said Congress must be involved in any decision.
“I expect the Commander in Chief would consult with Congress in the days ahead as he considers the options available to him,” he said in a statement after Kerry’s remarks.
The international talks on how to respond to Syria come as the House and Senate are away from Washington for their five-week August recess. They are not due back until September 9.
The Obama administration could benefit from wide support in Congress, especially as Americans are wary of U.S. involvement in Syria.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Saturday showed that about 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria’s civil war, while just 9 percent thought Obama should act.
Kerry called some members of Congress on Monday afternoon after his statement. Congressional aides said he was expected to continue the calls into the evening.
White House spokesman Jay Carney was peppered with questions about the administration’s plans for talking to lawmakers during his daily briefing for reporters on Monday, which had been delayed in order to take place after Kerry made his statement.
“It is certainly the case that the president has discussed Syria and Assad with members of Congress in the past, and I‘m sure he will do so in the future, including on this specific matter. But I‘m not going to itemize the calls or consultations except to say that they have been taking place and will continue to take place,” Carney said.
Obama has broad legal powers to undertake military action against Syria. Under the 1973 U.S. War Powers Act, the president must notify Congress within 48 hours of launching military action. But forces can fight for 60 days before Congress has to approve any action.
Some Democratic aides have complained that the administration’s communications on Syria have been mainly with the Senate and House intelligence committees, leaving many other members in the dark.
Democrats moved to quickly support the White House after Kerry spoke.
Representative Eliot Engel, a Democrat who has backed military aid for Syrian rebels and air strikes against Assad’s forces, said he hoped Obama would act quickly.
“Secretary Kerry is right that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is undeniable and shocks the conscience of humanity, and that there must be consequences,” he said in a statement.
Republican Representative Scott Rigell, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who represents a district in Virginia with a heavy military presence, said Obama should call Congress back in an emergency session before authorizing the use of military force.
“Congress is not a potted plant in this process,” he said in a press release.
Editing by Karey Van Hall and Xavier Briand