Showdown: Senate and Trump clash on Saudis

Showdown: Senate and Trump clash on Saudis
© Greg Nash

The Senate is heading toward a showdown with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE over Saudi Arabia following last month’s killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

Senators are expected to force a vote as soon as this week to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen, marking the first test of the U.S.-Saudi relationship in Congress since the journalist’s slaying. 

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If supporters are able to pass the resolution, it would be a significant break from Trump, who signaled last week that he is standing by the Saudi government.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTop nuclear official quietly left Pentagon in April Top nuclear official quietly left Pentagon in April Overnight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS-Iran tensions rise: Five things to know about oil tanker attack US-Iran tensions rise: Five things to know about oil tanker attack The US must do its part in closing the largest outdoor prison in the world MORE are scheduled to brief senators at 11 a.m. Wednesday, when they are expected to face a closed-door grilling as they try to persuade lawmakers to oppose the resolution. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPress: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Press: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Tenn.) predicted that unless the administration can show that Saudi Arabia will pay a “price,” the resolution will likely have the votes needed to at least start debate. 

“For people that want to speak to the issue of Yemen and Saudi Arabia and there’s no way otherwise to do it, this could turn out to be an appealing way,” said Corker, who later added that he “might well” vote to advance the resolution if the administration does not outline what steps it is taking.

Getting the legislation over the first hurdle, which will likely be a Republican motion to table it, would mark a political U-turn from March, when the Senate blocked the resolution. That measure called on Trump to withdraw any troops in “or affecting” Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al Qaeda. 

At the time, supporters fell six votes short after the administration exerted a full-court lobbying effort to try to buy itself more time to show progress with Saudi Arabia. But frustration on Capitol Hill has boiled over in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing and sparked a growing foreign policy divide between congressional Republicans and the White House. 

Supporters are stopping short of predicting success but say they feel more confident about their chances after previous votes were viewed as largely symbolic efforts to weigh in on foreign policy. 

“Having run three of these resolutions through the Senate, the votes don’t tend to get fleshed out until about an hour before because so many of these issues are new” for some members, said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott Murphy It's time to let Medicare to negotiate drug prices Senators clinch votes to rebuke Trump on Saudi arms sale Senators clinch votes to rebuke Trump on Saudi arms sale MORE (D-Conn.). “I feel more confident about this resolution than any one in the past.” 

Ten Democrats voted to table the resolution in March. Murphy said they had flipped some of those lawmakers to supporting it.

Senators want CIA chief Gina Haspel, who examined Turkish evidence on the killing, to attend Wednesday’s briefing, but she is not slated to. The CIA has reportedly concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death. But Trump pushed back on that notion last week. 

“No, no, they didn’t conclude. I’m sorry. No, they didn’t conclude. They did not come to a conclusion. They have feelings certain ways. I have the report,” he said.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezThere is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties Ending the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean MORE (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said that without an intelligence community official speaking at Wednesday’s briefing, he believes the Yemen resolution has a better shot of passing. 

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Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Senate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Senate Democrat: Trump Mexico tariff threat 'hopefully' a breaking point for GOP MORE (D-Del.), who like Menendez previously voted to table the resolution, described himself as a “likely yes.” 

Several Republican senators who opposed the resolution in March are also remaining noncommittal about how they will vote. Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeDemocrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Ariz.), a vocal critic of Trump, said he is “inclined” to support it. 

When the vote will take place has yet to be locked down. Senators warn that if they are able to get on the measure it could become a “wild, wild west” of amendment votes on any number of foreign policy issues. That would open the door to senators potentially altering the legislation on the Senate floor, setting up the sort of unpredictable floor drama GOP leadership likes to avoid. 

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Trump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Overnight Health Care: Pelosi to change drug-pricing plan after complaints | 2020 Democrats to attend Planned Parenthood abortion forum | House holds first major 'Medicare for All' hearing MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters it would likely happen on Thursday. But it could be pushed to next week with the Senate currently working through a slate of nominations.

The fate of the resolution could be decided by the briefing with Mattis and Pompeo. Several senators acknowledged they are waiting until after they hear from them before deciding how to vote.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersButtigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' Buttigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' The generational divide of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party MORE (I-Vt.), a sponsor of the legislation who is weighing another presidential bid in 2020, said, “Clearly the administration feels for whatever reason very close to the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia. … [But] I think most members of Congress are not prepared to support what Trump believes.”

Murphy added that the administration would “make every claim possible to stop this resolution from passing.” 

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump takes heat for remarks on help from foreign governments The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump takes heat for remarks on help from foreign governments The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle MORE (D-W.Va.), who voted against the March resolution, said the Defense secretary convinced senators in March to table the resolution. 

“I think that would be a harder argument to make now, so I’m anxious to hear from him,” Manchin said. 

The administration leveled sanctions against 17 Saudis for their alleged role in the Khashoggi killing. But Trump said last week that “we may never know all of the facts surrounding” the homicide.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders backed up the president’s claim, saying “we haven’t seen definitive evidence from our intelligence community that ties” the crown prince “directly” to the killing. 

Despite momentum for the Yemen legislation, the administration has many GOP supporters on Capitol Hill who are skeptical of the pending measure.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that some sort of response would be “appropriate” and that Khashoggi’s killing was “completely abhorrent” but argued against completely cutting ties with Saudi Arabia, which he described as having a “pragmatic” relationship with the United States. 

“Some kind of response certainly would be in order and we are discussing what the appropriate response would be,” McConnell told reporters. 

“I’m going to vote ‘no’ because it affects our relationship with other countries,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw House Intel Republican: 'Foolish' not to take info on opponent from foreign ally MORE (R-S.C.), an ally of the president who has been critical of Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi’s death. “I think it’s the wrong way to deal with this problem.”