Trump, Congress set for new showdown on Saudi Arabia

Trump, Congress set for new showdown on Saudi Arabia
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers and President TrumpDonald John TrumpNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Democratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' MORE are laying the groundwork for a new showdown over Saudi Arabia, underscoring deep frustrations on Capitol Hill.

With Trump expected to veto resolutions blocking his arms sales to Saudi Arabia, lawmakers are already eyeing additional avenues to push back on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which has soured in Congress over the Yemen civil war and the death of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

Members in both chambers are moving forward with separate bills that would hem in Trump or penalize Saudi Arabia.

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The House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced a bill Wednesday that would require the director of national intelligence to determine who is responsible for Khashoggi’s death and would impose visa restrictions on those people.

Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelOvernight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request House panel reinvites Pompeo to deliver Iran testimony Pompeo under pressure over threats to Yovanovitch MORE (D-N.Y.) said he expects that bill to come to the floor “shortly” after the July Fourth recess.

“The horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi demands accountability and justice,” Engel said during the committee’s consideration of the bill. “After the astounding evidence we’ve seen, it can’t just be business as usual. And since the administration is dragging its feet on taking any meaningful action, Congress must step forward.”

The action in the committee comes as several Saudi-related amendments have been filed for the House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act, including measures to block the arms sales, amend the Arms Export Control Act and end U.S. military support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen, among others.

The House will take up the mammoth defense bill next month, though only a fraction of the 600-plus amendments typically get a vote.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also approved legislation this week that would restrict Trump’s ability to use an “emergency” provision of the Arms Export Control Act to bypass a requirement that the administration give Congress a 30-day notification before an arms sale.

Several Republicans have raised concerns about how the administration used the emergency provision, bolstering its chances of picking up additional GOP support outside of the committee.

The bipartisan legislation, spearheaded by Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezDem senators say Iran threat to embassies not mentioned in intelligence briefing Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers Democrats 'utterly unpersuaded' by evidence behind Soleimani strike MORE (D-N.J.), comes after Trump sparked fierce backlash by leapfrogging Congress on a deal to sell arms to Saudi Arabia despite bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill. The administration argued that Iran’s actions in the region required enacting the emergency language on the Arms Export Control Act and forcing through the sale.

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Menendez said that he hasn’t gotten a commitment for a floor vote on his legislation but that he “is going to push for it.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischSenate vote on Trump's new NAFTA held up by committee review Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers Democrats 'utterly unpersuaded' by evidence behind Soleimani strike MORE (R-Idaho) is also drafting additional Saudi Arabia legislation that he is expected to unveil after the recess. Risch has stressed he wants a bill that could win over both White House and Democratic support, a potentially high bar given the deep differences between some lawmakers and Trump when it comes to Saudi Arabia.

“Some of the things that have happened cannot go unnoticed. There are certainly going to have to be repercussions and we have been negotiating with all parties, including my staff and the staff of the ranking member, together with the State Department and the White House,” Risch said during a recent floor speech, announcing that he and Menendez had set up a framework for further committee action. 

Menendez is expected to offer the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act as an amendment to the forthcoming Risch legislation. Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats request briefing on intel behind Trump's embassy threat claim US citizen dies in Egyptian prison after hunger strike President Trump's strike of choice MORE (D-Conn.), who has been at the center of the chamber’s Saudi Arabia action, said he had also been in touch with Risch as the GOP senator has drafted the bill and “we’ve given some suggestions to the chairman about it.”

The push for additional action comes as the House still needs to vote on resolutions blocking Trump’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. The 22 arms sales, estimated to be worth more than $8 billion, include precision-guided bombs, Patriot missiles, mortar rounds, drones, fighter jet parts and other military support.

Engel said he does not have a specific timeline for considering the arms sales resolutions but vowed to take them up in his committee.

“We’re absolutely going to pursue it,” he said. “We’ve already had some classified briefings. And it’s too important an issue because it has repercussions not only for Saudi Arabia now, but for lots of countries, including Saudi Arabia, down the road.”

Asked if there is a rush to pass the resolutions before the first weapons are delivered, Engel would not comment on the timeline of the deliveries, citing classified information. But in general, he said, “the deadline is now. We have to move on these things now.”

A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse poised to hand impeachment articles to Senate House to vote on Iran war powers bills sought by progressives Khanna: Timing of Iran bill being weighed against getting bigger majority MORE (D-Md.) told The Hill that they would plan to bring the Senate-passed resolutions to the floor in July.

Trump is expected to veto the resolutions of disapproval; the Senate will not have the votes to override the veto after initially passing the resolutions blocking the sale with 51 and 53 votes, respectively.

But the push for additional legislation is the latest sign of the growing frustration on Capitol Hill about the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The Senate passed a resolution last year that named Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as responsible for Khashoggi’s death. The resolution marked a significant break with Trump — he has refused to name the crown prince as responsible — but stalled in the then-GOP-controlled House.

Congress passed a separate resolution earlier this year forcing Trump to remove troops in or affecting Yemen unless they were fighting al Qaeda; Trump vetoed the resolution.

But unlike the Yemen resolution or the move to block Trump’s arms sales, any additional legislation will need 60 votes in the Senate and Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Senate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial Republicans will pay on Election Day for politicizing Trump's impeachment MORE’s (R-Ky.) support to get a floor vote, throwing a curveball into the chances of getting another bill to Trump’s desk.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial Democratic group plans mobile billboard targeting Collins on impeachment Paul predicts no Republicans will vote to convict Trump MORE (R-S.C.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he hoped the Senate will be able to find common ground, either by getting a bill Trump would back or building enough support to successfully override a veto, which would be the first of the Trump administration.

“You get a bill that would get a veto override, that’s one way to do it,” he said, “another would be to get a bill that he’ll sign, so we’ll keep plugging away.”