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 TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report 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 MattisThreatening foreign states with sanctions can backfire Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Amazon to challenge Pentagon's 'war cloud' decision in federal court MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS, Sudan to exchange ambassadors for first time in decades Iran expert: Trump's foreign policy approach aimed at instigating 'unrest' Fox's Napolitano says obstruction 'easiest' impeachment offense for Democrats 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 CorkerRNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing 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 MurphyOvernight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases Trump administration releases 5M in military aid for Lebanon after months-long delay Senate Democrats ask Pompeo to recuse himself from Ukraine matters 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) MenendezThe job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' Senate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Graham blocks resolution recognizing Armenian genocide after Erdoğan meeting 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 Democrats ask Pompeo to recuse himself from Ukraine matters Hillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Democrats raise privacy concerns over Amazon home security system 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 FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing 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 CornynPush to investigate Bidens sets up potential for Senate turf war Pressure grows on House GOP leaders to hold line ahead of impeachment trial GOP senators warn Trump trade deal will go into 2020 if deal not reached this week 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 SandersGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Sanders to join youth climate strikers in Iowa Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work 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) ManchinNo one wins with pro-abortion litmus test Senate confirms Brouillette to replace Perry as Energy secretary Political purity tests are for losers 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 McConnellTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Schumer briefs Democrats on impeachment trial 'mechanics' Trump legal team gears up for Senate impeachment trial in meeting with GOP senators 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 GrahamTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans GOP member urges Graham to subpoena Schiff, Biden phone records Trump legal team gears up for Senate impeachment trial in meeting with GOP senators 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.”