By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers lashed out at the Obama administration's handling of Syria's civil war on Wednesday, demanding a stronger American response to the conflict and better communication from the White House about its plans.
Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed deep frustration after Anne Patterson, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, declined to answer a question about strategy in a public setting.
"I have a problem with a generic answer to a generic question that I can't believe is classified," Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said during a committee hearing.
Heated exchanges during questioning of Patterson and Tom Countryman, another assistant secretary of state, underscored the often deep divide between Congress - both Republicans and President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats - and the administration on foreign policy.
The emotional hearing came a day after Senate Democrats dropped from a Ukraine aid bill reforms of the International Monetary Fund sought by the Obama administration, saying they felt it was more important to move the bill quickly.
Members of the Foreign Relations panel in particular are frustrated by the administration's failure to do more in Syria, where 140,000 people have been killed, millions have become refugees and thousands of foreign militant fighters have been trained as rebels have fought to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Senator Bob Corker, the committee's top Republican, called one answer from Patterson "major, misleading baloney."
"I can't imagine you actually saying that in this setting. That would indicate to people that we have a military strategy relative to Syria, and that ... could not be further from the truth," the Tennessee senator said.
Arizona Republican John McCain, a frequent critic of Obama's foreign policy, called U.S. Syria policy "a colossal failure."
"The greatest nation in the world has sat by and watched this genocide taking place," the senator said.
The Foreign Relations Committee voted in May to authorize sending military aid to the Syrian opposition and approved in September the use of U.S. military force in the conflict.
But significant lethal aid has not yet been sent and the White House, after resistance from other members of Congress, dropped plans to bomb Syria after agreeing with Russia to destroy Assad's chemical weapons cache.
Corker disputed an assertion from Countryman, who handles nonproliferation issues, that the chemical weapons plan had been constructive.
"I disagree with you strongly. With respect, I think you're delusional," Corker said.
The session ended after the committee requested a classified hearing with testimony about what military action is being considered, what actions are being taken and an update on the destruction of Assad's chemical weapons.
"And if you can't do this, then let us know so none of us are wasting our time," Menendez said.
(Editing by Jan Paschal)