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 TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race 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 Mattis20 years after 9/11, we've logged successes but the fight continues Defense & National Security — The mental scars of Afghanistan House panel advances 8B defense bill MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoChristie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group America needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Harris to hold fundraiser for McAuliffe ahead of Virginia governor's race 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 CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  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 MurphyTell our troops: 'Your sacrifice wasn't in vain' Sunday shows preview: Bombing in Kabul delivers blow to evacuation effort; US orders strikes on ISIS-K White House seeks to regain control on Afghanistan 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) MenendezOvernight Defense & National Security — Blinken heads to the hot seat Blinken to testify before Senate panel next week on Afghanistan Overnight Health Care — FDA vaccine scientists depart amid booster drama 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 CoonsChris Andrew CoonsSenate Democrats to Garland: 'It's time to end the federal death penalty' Hillicon Valley: Cryptocurrency amendment blocked in Senate | Dems press Facebook over suspension of researchers' accounts | Thousands push back against Apple plan to scan US iPhones for child sexual abuse images Democrats press Facebook over suspension of researchers' accounts 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 FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots 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 CornynDemocrats make case to Senate parliamentarian for 8 million green cards Democrats to make pitch Friday for pathway to citizenship in spending bill Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime 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 SandersBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants 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 ManchinJoe ManchinBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week 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 McConnellLindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' 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 offers sympathy for those charged with Jan. 6 offenses Lindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod 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.”