By Patricia Zengerle and Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Members of the U.S. Congress from both parties on Friday backed President Donald Trump’s cruise missile strikes on Syria, but demanded he develop a strategy for dealing with the broader conflict and consult with Congress on any further action.
In the biggest foreign policy decision of his presidency, Trump ordered the firing of cruise missiles at a Syrian air base that U.S. officials said was the launching point for a deadly chemical weapons attack against Syrian civilians this week.
“The strike was well planned, well executed. It was certainly more than a pinprick, and sends a message … that using chemical weapons again is not something (Syrian president Bashar al-Assad) can do with impunity,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told a news conference.
McConnell said Vice President Mike Pence had called him to explain the rationale for the strikes. It was one of a series of calls by administration officials to members of Congress beginning shortly before the strikes and extending until after midnight on Thursday evening.
Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was called by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump himself. After seeing the devastation in Syria and visiting refugee camps, he said he became emotional when he heard the news.
“When I talked to the president last night, I told him how proud I was of our country. And him,” Corker said.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, had called.
“I am hopeful these strikes will convince the Assad regime that such actions should never be repeated,” Warner said in a statement.
Partisan debate over how to deal with Syria has been bitter. In 2013, then-President Barack Obama ran into stiff resistance from many Republicans, including McConnell, when he proposed military action to retaliate for a chemical attack that crossed Obama’s red line.
Many Democrats, some of whom had paid a political penalty for backing Republican President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, also opposed intervention.
Obama’s abrupt decision not to fire missiles and instead work with Russia to remove Assad’s chemical weapons infuriated many Republicans who had backed the Democratic president’s proposal.
The conflict in Syria has now dragged on for seven years, devastating the country, destabilizing the region and leaving millions homeless.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio said he wanted a broader strategy. “I would love to have one yesterday, or the day before. I’d like to have one already but I’d rather them design it correctly than not,” he said, leaving a briefing by General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Most lawmakers insisted Trump should seek Congress’ approval for any additional military action.
“Congress must live up to its Constitutional responsibility to debate an Authorization of the Use of Military Force against a sovereign nation,” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote in a letter asking Speaker Paul Ryan to call the House of Representatives back to Washington to debate a formal authorization to use military force.
The House is not due to return until late April.
Republican Senator Rand Paul, a member of the foreign relations committee, called the Syria strikes illegal. Under the U.S. Constitution, declarations of war require congressional approval. “We’ve had no chance to weigh or weigh in on whether we should do it or not,” Paul told reporters.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, another committee member, said that if Congress does not assert itself now, it risked losing its constitutional right to declare war.
“I think it’s devastating to the future role of Congress in foreign affairs. If we don’t authorize this action, I don’t see why any president would ever come to Congress,” Murphy said.
(Reporting by David Alexander, Eric Walsh and Warren Strobel; Editing by Bernadette Baum and James Dalgleish)