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Senate to get briefing on Saudi Arabia that could determine sanctions

Senators expect to get a briefing next week from senior Trump administration officials on Saudi Arabia that could determine whether Congress goes forward with sanctions on the longtime U.S. ally. 

Two congressional sources said an “all-senators briefing” is expected when the Senate returns to Washington after the Thanksgiving recess.

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The briefing could determine whether there’s any chance of passing sanctions legislation or blocking a major arms sale to Saudi Arabia in the end-of-year session.

“That will be really important,” said a Senate GOP aide. “I’m not sure adding sanctions will happen but the Saudi situation is not over.”

The scheduled topic of the briefing is the civil war in Yemen, where a Saudi coalition backed by the U.S. military is fighting against Houthi rebels.

However, the topic of Saudi Arabia’s role in the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi will also come up during the meeting, as could a discussion about U.S.-Russia policy, said a second congressional source. 

The source said Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoBiden faces day of reckoning on China and Taiwan Nikki Haley says if Trump runs for president in 2024 then she won't Blinken: China 'didn't do what it needed to do' in early stages of pandemic MORE will likely conduct the briefing, although that has not yet been finalized.

A State Department spokesman said the department didn't have anything to announce about Pompeo's schedule. The Defense Department did not return a request for comment.

Senate aides warn that the prospects of passing Saudi sanctions legislation in the lame-duck session will be a “heavy lift” because of opposition from President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to move ahead with billion UAE weapons sale approved by Trump Fox News hires high-profile defense team in Dominion defamation lawsuit Associate indicted in Gaetz scandal cooperating with DOJ: report MORE.

The president warned Tuesday that oil prices could go “through the roof” if relations with Saudi Arabia broke down over Khashoggi's killing inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month.

On Wednesday, Trump thanked the kingdom, an influential member of OPEC, for the price of oil dropping to $54 a barrel. And the president continued to emphasize maintaining strong relations with the Saudis on Thursday while speaking to reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where he was spending the Thanksgiving holiday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell seeks to end feud with Trump Senate GOP signal they won't filibuster debate of hate crimes bill Colin Powell on Afghanistan: 'We've done all we can do' MORE (R-Ky.) has warned colleagues that floor time will be limited in the final session of the year and that his top priorities are passing a farm bill and the year-end spending legislation.

Even the criminal justice reform bill, which has Trump’s support, may not see floor time.

But there is growing pressure from GOP senators for the administration to take a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The CIA reportedly concluded last week that the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi consulate. On Tuesday, Trump refused to blame the crown prince for Khashoggi's death, saying in a lengthy statement that "maybe he did and maybe he didn't" order the killing while lauding the kingdom as a "steadfast partner."

Sen.-elect Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyFamily policy that could appeal to the right and the left Press: Corporate America defies the GOP Romney on NRSC awarding Trump: Not 'my preference' MORE (R-Utah) was among the latest GOP senators to criticize the president when he declared late Tuesday that Trump’s statement about U.S.-Saudi relations was “inconsistent with an enduring foreign policy, with our national interest, with basic human rights, and with American greatness.”

GOP aides said Trump’s statement, which immediately provoked backlash from Democrats and several key Republicans including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerFox News inks contributor deal with former Democratic House member Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain Roy Blunt won't run for Senate seat in 2022 MORE (R-Tenn.), rekindled impetus for sanctions legislation. 

“That statement yesterday only made matters worse in some ways for the administration,” said a Senate GOP aide. 

Corker criticized the White House for moonlighting “as a public relations firm” for the crown prince and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP lawmaker 'encouraged' by Biden's Afghanistan strategy Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  Graham: 'A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous' MORE (R-S.C.), usually a staunch Trump ally, warned “it is not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.”

Democrats, meanwhile, piled on with criticism and called on McConnell to bring sanctions legislation to the floor. 

Corker and Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Trump late Tuesday asking the administration to investigate specifically whether Crown Prince Mohammed was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. 

Senate aides who are skeptical of passing additional sanctions legislation note that the Corker-Menendez letter triggers the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which would empower the administration to target the crown prince with sanctions. They argue that the administration doesn’t need additional authority to enact sanctions. 

There’s bipartisan support in the Senate behind the Saudi Accountability and Yemen Act, which would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, prohibit U.S. aircraft from refueling Saudi planes in the Yemen conflict, mandate sanctions on people responsible for Khashoggi’s death and require a report on human rights in Saudi Arabia.

The co-sponsors include Graham and Menendez along with Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate GOP signal they won't filibuster debate of hate crimes bill Democrats work to pick up GOP support on anti-Asian hate crimes bill Against mounting odds, Biden seeks GOP support for infrastructure plan MORE (R-Maine), Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungTo encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision Senate Republicans voice opposition to Biden on Iran Biden infrastructure proposal prioritizes funds for emerging technologies MORE (R-Ind.), Jack ReedJack ReedBiden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  Overnight Defense: Biden nominating first female Army secretary | Israel gets tough on Iran amid nuclear talks | Army's top enlisted soldier 'very proud' of officer pepper sprayed by police On The Money: CDC extends coronavirus eviction ban through June 30 | Biden to detail infrastructure proposal Wednesday | US won't quickly lift Trump tariffs on China MORE (D-R.I.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenGOP lawmaker 'encouraged' by Biden's Afghanistan strategy Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  Lawmakers express horror at latest Capitol attack MORE (D-N.H.).

Still, lawmakers pushing for action are divided over the best approach. 

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRepublicans need to stop Joe Biden's progressive assault on America Fauci fatigue sets in as top doc sows doubt in vaccine effectiveness Republican legislators target private sector election grants MORE (R-Ky.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee who criticized Trump’s statement Tuesday as sounding like “Saudi Arabia First,” says it would be better to focus on blocking a $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia instead of sanctions.

“I think sanctions are a way of pretending to do something,” Paul told The Hill. “It’s a way of acting tough without being tough. Cutting off the arms sales will make them wake up. In fact, their air force would be grounded in two or three months if they don’t have spare parts.” 

GOP aides say the lack of a consensus plan on how to move forward on Saudi Arabia will make it tougher to pass sanctions legislation in the lame-duck session.

“There are too many things that people want to do and that makes it hard,” said one GOP aide.