Congress raises pressure on Saudi Arabia

Congress raises pressure on Saudi Arabia
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Lawmakers are mulling legislation to punish Saudi Arabia for the death of a U.S.-based journalist in the latest sign of the bipartisan furor sparked by Jamal Khashoggi’s slaying.

How the United States should respond has emerged as a wedge between Republicans on Capitol Hill and the Trump administration just two weeks before the midterm elections.

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Saudi Arabia is a source of bipartisan frustration on Capitol Hill, where senators have ranged from being deeply skeptical of to openly rejecting the Saudi narrative that the Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident died in a “fight,” and that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not sign off on the killing.

“If you have an ally that you work with on certain things, you don't want to disrupt that relationship. But we have to, we have to have some values,” Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane Flake70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents McSally ties Democratic rival Kelly to Sanders in new ad McSally launches 2020 campaign MORE (R-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday at a political forum hosted by CNN. “And speaking out against a regime if they've murdered a journalist, that ought to be an easy call.”

The talk of trying to pass legislation comes as the Trump administration continues to send mixed signals about where the White House will ultimately come down on attempts to punish the Saudi government.

Trump told reporters on Monday that he was “not satisfied” with their with account of Khashoggi’s death, but hours later the Saudi government tweeted a photo of a meeting between the crown prince and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinGAO report details challenges of implementing Trump tax law Financial trade tax gains traction with 2020 Democrats Hillicon Valley: Agencies play catch-up over TikTok security concerns | Senate Dems seek sanctions on Russia over new election meddling | Pentagon unveils AI principles MORE.

Congress is out of town until mid-November, but lawmakers in both parties are floating a range of potential options to crack down the Saudi government, from new financial penalties to ending arms sales and expelling Saudi diplomats. Aides say behind-the-scenes talks about next steps, including potential sanctions, are ongoing.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulCongress eyes killing controversial surveillance program Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick Congress set for clash over surveillance reforms MORE (R-Ky.) — who has been a close ally of Trump’s but a longtime skeptic of Saudi Arabia — said he has discussed with Trump his belief that the United States should end arms sales, but he expects the administration to keep trying to sell equipment to Riyadh.

“I think if we would get another vote now we could actually block them,” Paul told reporters Monday. “These sales will have to eventually be announced, but I think they’re going to try everything they can to avoid it in the middle of this outcry over the murder.”

The Senate has previously tried but failed to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Senators last year fell four votes short to advance a resolution that would block part of Trump’s $110 billion arms deal with the country.

But the number of senators in favor of blocking future arms sales appears to be growing in the wake of Khashoggi’s death. Several lawmakers who voted against last year’s failed resolution now say it should now be on the table.

Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders takes incoming during intense SC debate Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Democrats block two Senate abortion bills MORE (R-Neb.), who voted against the 2017 resolution, told CNN on Sunday that Saudi Arabia has “got a lot of explaining to do.”

“And I think everything should be on the table,” he added.

Blocking an arms sale to Saudi Arabia would mark a significant shift not only between Washington and Riyadh but between congressional Republicans and Trump. GOP lawmakers appear to be trying to give Trump room to come around to punishing Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders takes incoming during intense SC debate Congress eyes killing controversial surveillance program Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE (R-S.C.), a major ally for Saudi Arabia in the Senate, told to CNN that he felt “betrayed” by Khashoggi’s slaying. And Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Energy: Critics pile on Trump plan to roll back major environmental law | Pick for Interior No. 2 official confirmed | JPMorgan Chase to stop loans for fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic MacGregor confirmed as Interior deputy chief GOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman MORE (R-Fla.) on Monday characterized the journalist’s murder as “disrespectful to Trump [and] those of us who have supported the strategic alliance,” adding that it left the president in “a terrible predicament.”

Lawmakers have been wary of directly challenging the president, avoiding fights with Trump on issues like immigration and tariffs. And the administration has repeatedly shot down the possibility of ending U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, arguing that it’s a top ally in the Middle East and an important counterbalance to Iran.

Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump campaign opening 15 community centers to reach black voters Trump declares US-India relationship 'stronger than ever before' Trumps tour Taj Mahal to cap off first day in India MORE, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, described the administration as being in the “fact finding” phase, but also used an interview at the CNN forum to tout the benefits of the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

“I think that our administration has made a lot of gains in our fights against terrorism,” Kushner said. “We have to deal with the long-term ideology of extremism, and Saudi Arabia is a critical partner in that.”

The Saudi government used Mnuchin’s meeting to tout the U.S.-Saudi relationship, saying the partnership “holds an important role in the future in line with the Kingdom’s.”

Trump indicated to USA Today on Monday evening, after his call with Crown Prince Mohammed, that he would oppose blocking arms sales, saying the United States had "many other" options.

But Trump is facing growing international pressure to crack down on Saudi Arabia after Germany became the first major U.S. ally to announce after Khashoggi’s death that it would freeze arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

A Democratic Senate aide said there are early-stage talks about passing additional sanctions either during the lame-duck session or next year that would target Saudi Arabia beyond those that the administration could enact under a human rights law.

“Without exact whip counts, it’s clear that the momentum has never been stronger – people just aren’t interested in giving them the benefit of the doubt,” the aide said.

Bipartisan frustration on Saudi Arabia is a long-running tradition. In 2016, Congress held its first override of a veto from then-President Obama on legislation that allows families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts.

Foreign policy has been one of the key points of contention between Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress. Lawmakers last year passed financial penalties against Russia, including reining in Trump’s ability to lift sanctions, despite pushback from the White House and the State Department.

In addition to Congress-led sanctions, members of the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as Graham and Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyDemocrats introduce bill to reverse Trump's shift of military money toward wall Republicans give Barr vote of confidence Democratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe MORE (D-Vt.), sent Trump a letter last week triggering an investigation under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The Magnitsky law gives the administration 120 days to conduct an investigation and report back to Congress on whether a foreign person is responsible for an extrajudicial killing, torture or other gross violation of internationally recognized human rights against an individual exercising freedom of expression.

Sanctions, however, could spark a backlash on Capitol Hill.

Paul, who did not sign last week's Foreign Relations Committee letter, told reporters on Monday that talk of new sanctions was "faux outrage" and "a way of pretending to something."

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerMcConnell, Romney vie for influence over Trump's trial RNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight MORE (R-Tenn.) — while acknowledging sanctions could be needed if Saudi officials are found to be responsible — said they are a "blunt tool" and that the U.S. government should also "think of other ways to deal with this kind of behavior."

Senators were already growing impatient with Saudi Arabia over concerns that it wasn’t trying to limit civilian casualties resulting from its bombings in Yemen’s civil war. A resolution to force Trump to end the U.S. military's support for Saudi Arabia's bombing operations in Yemen narrowly failed in March.

But since then, senators who voted against the March resolution have appeared skeptical that the Saudi government is making a genuine effort to curtail civilian deaths, and supporters are using Khashoggi’s slaying to push for another vote as soon as next month.

“Killing a United States resident is never acceptable behavior, and the repeated failure to be honest about the incident should call into question the extent of our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeCongress eyes killing controversial surveillance program Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick Sanders says idea he can't work with Republicans is 'total nonsense' MORE (R-Utah) said on Monday. "The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has had six months to study the resolution to end U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. It is time for a vote.”