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 TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 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: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Bipartisan House members call on Trump to rescind Erdoğan invitation House Democrats pull subpoena for ex-Trump national security official 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) MenendezGraham blocks resolution recognizing Armenian genocide after Erdoğan meeting Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Fairness, tradition, and the Constitution demand the 'whistleblower' step forward 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 RischTrump holds chummy meeting with Turkey's Erdoğan Overnight Defense: Trump hosts Erdoğan at White House | Says Turkish leader has 'great relationship with the Kurds' | Highlights from first public impeachment hearing GOP senators to meet with Turkey's Erdoğan, Trump amid tensions 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 MurphyOvernight Defense: Trump, Erdogan confirm White House meeting | Public impeachment hearings set for next week | Top defense appropriator retiring Fairness, tradition, and the Constitution demand the 'whistleblower' step forward Senate Democrat: Colleague was working on fantasy football trade instead of listening to Schumer 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 Hoyer Hoyer calls GOP efforts to out whistleblower 'despicable' Live coverage: House holds first public impeachment hearing Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate 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 McConnellGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Graham: Senate trial 'must expose the whistleblower' Graham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial 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 GrahamGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Graham: Senate trial 'must expose the whistleblower' Graham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial 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.”