Congress raises pressure on Saudi Arabia

Congress raises pressure on Saudi Arabia
© Getty Images

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 FlakeFlake urges Republicans to condemn 'vile and offensive' Trump tweets Flake responds to Trump, Jimmy Carter barbs: 'We need to stop trying to disqualify each other' Jeff Flake responds to Trump's 'greener pastures' dig on former GOP lawmakers 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 MnuchinPelosi, Mnuchin reach 'near-final agreement' on budget, debt ceiling Don't let budget talks threaten Medicare Part D The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony 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 PaulThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony This week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill US-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' 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 SasseJeffrey Epstein denied bail Acosta on shaky ground as GOP support wavers Some good advice for Democrats to ignore in 2020 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 — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony Democrats should rise above and unify against Trump's tweets US-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' 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 RubioAna Navarro lashes out at Rubio for calling outrage over Trump's 'go back' tweet 'self righteous' US-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Media cried wolf: Calling every Republican a racist lost its bite 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 talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Trump: 'We already started' talks to get A$AP Rocky home from Sweden Kim Kardashian West thanks Trump, Kushner for helping efforts to free A$AP Rocky from Swedish jail 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 LeahyAl Franken says he 'absolutely' regrets resigning Poll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Democrats grill USDA official on relocation plans that gut research staff 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 CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' 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 LeeThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony This week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Health care moves to center stage of Democratic primary fight | Sanders, Biden trade sharps jabs on Medicare for All | Senate to vote on 9/11 bill next week | Buttigieg pushes for cheaper insulin 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.”