Pittsburgh region's lawmakers welcome chance to share thoughts on action in Syria

President needs to make strong case for consent to act, they contend

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WASHINGTON -- Members of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation said Saturday they welcome President Barack Obama's decision to seek lawmakers' authorization for military intervention in Syria.

However, they cautioned that Mr. Obama is going to have to make a strong case to get their consent. Many Americans appear to be skeptical about intervening in Syria. And this will pose a challenge for the president and Congress, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., noted.

"I'd be very surprised if the position of going forward with the strike would reach 50 percent in our state," Mr. Casey said. "I don't think it would get to 50."

Congress is expected to take up the matter as soon as members return from their summer break on Sept. 9, and Pennsylvania lawmakers say they will be prepared to ask tough questions of the administration before authorizing any kind of military strike.

"The bar will be very high for me to support this action. There has to be a compelling national security interest for the United States," Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said in a phone interview Saturday.

"We're not the world's policemen, and when we decide to take a military action it has to be because there's some security risk for our country. That's the case the president is going to have to make," Mr. Doyle said. "But having said that, what was done was horrific. We know over 400 children are dead, over 1,400 people are dead because they were killed with chemical weapons ... and if nobody responds to this, then what kind of message does that send?"

Other members are grappling with those questions, too.

The decision won't be simple, members said, noting that the country's closest ally, Britain, has rejected involvement.

"There are many concerns involved in the debate. Rogue nations have threatened to attack Israel in retaliation for any American action," said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton. Second, he said, there are concerns that al-Qaida is involved with the Syrian rebel forces and could benefit from American intervention.

Mr. Barletta said he'll take all of that into account, but that ultimately a strike can only be justified if it protects this nation's security interests.

In a written statement Saturday, Mr. Casey said the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is a threat to both regional stability and broad United States national security interests.

"Every day that Assad remains in power helps Iran and Hezbollah who plot against the United States and its allies," said Mr. Casey, who is a member of the National Security Working Group and co-chairman of the Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism Caucus. "I believe it is in the [country's] national security interest to respond to this most recent chemical attack."

Rep. Glenn "G.T." Thompson, R-Centre, is skeptical.

"Despite the president's conclusion that the United States should take military action against the Assad regime, I believe it remains very unclear as to what goals America's intervention would achieve," he said in a written statement.

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, wants to see what evidence the administration has gathered to support a military strike. A frequent Obama critic, Mr. Murphy said the president has not been consistent in his Middle East policies.

For many members, the onus is on the president to make the case for the limited strike he is advocating.

Rep. Joe Pitts said his ears will be open.

"I hope that we are presented with a clear strategy that would both discourage further use of chemical weapons and avoid entangling our nation or our allies in this civil war. That is not going to be easy to accomplish, but I am willing to listen to the president and carefully consider his plan," said Mr. Pitts, R-Lancaster.

Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Philadelphia, and Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, said they're looking for more information.

"I will attend the briefings, review the documents, confer with my colleagues and listen to my constituents before the House votes," Mr. Rothfus said Saturday.

Ms. Schwartz said: "I will engage with my colleagues and the administration to determine the best course of action to address the Syrian regime's heinous disregard for human rights and protect our national security interests."

Mr. Murphy said he will be looking for the administration to explain whether it has a plan to deal with potential retaliation that could deepen and widen the conflict.

Those answers could come at congressional hearings and administration briefings planned for the coming days.

"I expect President Obama to adequately answer all of the lingering questions that Americans still have, and fully explain the defined objective of an American military strike, the precise strategy for carrying it out, and how it involves our national security interest," Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, said in a written statement.

"Our troops, their families and the public deserve answers about why military action is necessary," Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Chester, said.

Democrats and Republicans alike say the president is right to seek congressional authorization rather than use executive powers to engage the military.

"The president rightfully recognizes the importance of seeking congressional approval," said Ms. Schwartz.


The New York Times contributed. Washington Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.


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