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 pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump 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 MattisOnly Donald Trump has a policy for Afghanistan New Pentagon report blames Trump troop withdrawal for ISIS surge in Iraq and Syria Mattis returns to board of General Dynamics MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoAfghan president vows to take revenge after Islamic State attack on wedding The Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters Latest pro-democracy rally draws tens of thousands in Hong Kong 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 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.) 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: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces White House eyes September action plan for gun proposals Trump phoned Democratic senator to talk gun control 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) MenendezPelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid House passes temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans Senate panel advances bipartisan bill to lower drug prices amid GOP blowback 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 CoonsThe United States broken patent system is getting worse Biden faces scrutiny for his age from other Democrats Democrats press FBI for details on Kavanaugh investigation 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 FlakeArpaio considering running for former sheriff job after Trump pardon Overnight Energy: Warren edges past Sanders in poll of climate-focused voters | Carbon tax shows new signs of life | Greens fuming at Trump plans for development at Bears Ears monument Carbon tax shows new signs of life in Congress 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 CornynThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters Democrats keen to take on Cornyn despite formidable challenges The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape 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 SandersTop Sanders adviser: Warren isn't competing for 'same pool of voters' Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Top aide Jeff Weaver lays out Sanders's path to victory 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) ManchinSunday shows - Recession fears dominate Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Trump vows to 'always uphold the Second Amendment' amid ongoing talks on gun laws 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 faces crucial decisions on economy, guns Are Democrats turning Trump-like? House Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' 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 GrahamPelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid Graham warns Trump on Taliban deal in Afghanistan: Learn from 'Obama's mistakes' Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid 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.”