By Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress will not support U.S. military intervention in Venezuela despite hints by President Donald Trump that such action had not been ruled out, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said on Wednesday.
"I do worry about the president's saber rattling, his hints that U.S. military intervention remains an option. I want to make clear to our witnesses and to anyone else watching: U.S. military intervention is not an option," U.S. Representative Eliot Engel said at the opening of a hearing on the volatile political situation in the OPEC nation.
Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has to approve foreign military action.
Engel also warned about the possible effects on the Venezuelan people of U.S. sanctions on state oil company PDVSA. The United States in January imposed sanctions aimed at limiting President Nicolas Maduro's access to oil revenue.
"I appreciate the need to squeeze Maduro," Engel said. "But the White House must think through the potential repercussions that these sanctions could have on the Venezuelan people if Maduro does not leave office in the coming weeks."
Venezuela already faces chronic food and medical supply shortages, hyperinflation and severe economic contraction.
The head of the country's National Assembly legislature, Juan Guaido, invoked a constitutional provision to assume the presidency three weeks ago, arguing that Maduro's re-election last year was a sham.
Most Western countries, including the United States, have recognised Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate head of state, but Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China, as well as control of state institutions including the military.
Trump's pick to lead U.S. efforts on Venezuela, former U.S. diplomat Elliott Abrams, said Washington would keep up pressure on Maduro and his inner circle by "a variety of means."
"But we will also provide off-ramps to those who will do what is right for the Venezuelan people," he said.
Asked about a Wall Street Journal report that Guaido has held debt negotiations with Chinese officials in Washington, Abrams said there had been some discussions but he was unaware of any formal talks. Beijing has denied it held any talks with Venezuela's opposition to protect its investments.
"I don't believe there are any negotiations, using that term narrowly. Discussions, sending of messages have taken place," Abrams said.
China has lent more than $50 billion to Venezuela through oil-for-loan agreements over the past decade, securing energy supplies for its fast-growing economy.
Abrams drew intermittent protests at the start of the hearing. "You are a convicted criminal!" one man shouted before being escorted out of the room.
Abrams, assistant secretary of state during the administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, was convicted in 1991 on two misdemeanour counts of withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal. He was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Rosalba O'Brien)