Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischTrump at a pivotal crossroads on Iran Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't want war with Iran | Pentagon chief calls attack on Saudi oil facilities 'unprecedented' | Administration weighs response | 17th US service member killed in Afghanistan this year Bolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran MORE (R-Idaho) is navigating a political tightrope as he tries to craft legislation on Saudi Arabia despite deep divisions between the Trump administration and Congress. 

Risch has been locked in negotiations with Democrats and the administration over the parameters of the bill, which is being discussed against a backdrop of congressional animosity with the Saudis following the country’s bloody intervention in Yemen’s civil war and its involvement in the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi

ADVERTISEMENT

Democrats and some GOP critics of the Saudis are seeking to both punish the country and restrict U.S. support for Yemen's civil war, while the administration and other Republicans oppose such steps.

Walking into that dynamic is Risch, a relatively low-profile senator perhaps best known nationally for his cable news appearances backing President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness, ballots and battling opioids: Why the Universal Postal Union benefits the US Sanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth MORE and for holding up a 2018 funding bill because it named a wilderness preserve after a dead political rival.  

Risch is trying to create a bill that can win 60 votes in the Senate and Trump’s support.

“This thing's been heavily negotiated between all parties, Republicans, Democrats, State Department, the White House. I want a bill that can pass here, pass the House and be signed by the president. That’s the objective,” Risch told The Hill. 

The political and partisan divisions facing Risch are steep. The Senate has already bucked Trump on ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen and tried to block the president from selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Trump vetoed the Yemen resolution and is expected to do the same to the 22 arms sale measures once they pass the House. 

Risch opposed those resolutions, but a majority on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed them.

The panel is stacked with Republicans who have split with Risch and GOP leadership over support for Saudi Arabia.

Asked if he aligned with Risch on Saudi Arabia, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWe've lost sight of the real scandal The Hill's Morning Report - What is Trump's next move on Iran? The Memo: Times correction gives GOP lifeline in latest Kavanaugh controversy MORE (R-S.C.), a member of the panel, instead pointed to Democrats, led by Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezAs NFIP reauthorization deadline looms, Congress must end lethal subsidies Senate Democrats warn Trump: Don't invite Putin to G-7 Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid MORE (D-N.J.), the committee’s ranking member. 

“I’m probably more aligned with Menendez,” Graham said. “[But] you try to find common ground. I think Senator Risch wants to do something. He wants to take a little more measured response. My view is this is sort of a defining moment of American foreign policy.” 

Pressed on how the Senate could get a bill past the White House given the setbacks so far this year, Graham added, “You get a bill that would get a veto override. That’s one way to do it. The other way is to get a bill that he’ll sign.”

Risch, asked about having “strong opinions” on his panel, looked around as he feigned surprise, quipping, “Really? Gosh.” 

“Are you including me in that, by the way? Because I would be in that category,” Risch added. 

Risch’s public demeanor is a 180 from former Sen. 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.), his predecessor atop the committee whose short stature belied the forceful personality he brought to foreign policy fights. 

Risch is much closer to Trump than Corker, who often battled with the president. 

“I think they’re different personality types,” said Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoGOP senator: Iran is behind attack on Saudi Arabia House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge Lobbying World MORE (R-Wyo.), a panel member. “Jim is a guy who wants to make sure that things are done properly, to work with the administration rather than confront the administration.”

Several GOP members vented frustration to reporters immediately after a closed-door briefing on Khashoggi's death in March, with Graham calling it a “waste of time” and Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Bolton returns to political group after exiting administration MORE (R-Utah) saying they “learned very little.” 

But Risch was more even-keeled when he released a statement hours later, saying they were reviewing material from the State Department and that “we will not let it go.” 

On the Senate’s Saudi actions, GOP Sens. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungSenators pressure Trump to help end humanitarian crisis in Kashmir Congress set for chaotic fall sprint Overnight Defense: Senate fails to override Trump veto on Saudi arms sales | Two US troops killed in Afghanistan | Senators tee up nominations, budget deal ahead of recess MORE (Ind.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul: Almost every mass shooter 'is sending off signals' Liz Cheney says world is more stable, 'safer' under Trump Sunday shows preview: Democratic candidates make the rounds after debate MORE (Ky.) were among the seven Republican senators who voted with Democrats on the Yemen resolution. Young, Paul and Graham also voted to block part of Trump’s arms deal. 

U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained for years on Capitol Hill. But growing civilian casualties in Yemen, Khashoggi’s death and the Democratic takeover of the House have left lawmakers bristling to take more legislative action.  

“There’s a number of different pieces of Saudi legislation floating around out there, and Risch is aware of the kind of increasing restiveness of the committee members about it,” said Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineBolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine Air Force nominee: Setting up Space Force would be 'key imperative' MORE (D-Va.). 

Trump’s praise late last week of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could help build pressure in Congress for lawmakers to crack down on Saudi Arabia. Speaking at the Group of 20 summit, Trump called the crown prince a “friend of mine” and credited him with creating a “revolution in a very positive way” within Saudi Arabia. 

Romney said the president’s remark “sends the wrong message to the world.”

“It’s past time for Congress & the administration to impose sanctions for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Romney added. 

Democrats need to win over only two Republicans to either sink a bill in committee that they don’t support or try to force through changes to Risch’s forthcoming bill through amendments. 

Risch has declined to offer specifics about his forthcoming legislation beyond saying Saudi Arabia should face “repercussions” for recent actions. He also demurred when asked how he would handle amendments except to say that he would “do everything we can to get there and accommodate as many people as we can that want to get on board.” 

“We’ve worked hard to get as many people on it as we can, and then you’ve got to vote, and if the votes are there, the votes are there, and if they’re not, they’re not,” Risch said. 

A spokesperson for the chairman said they didn't have specifics to share about how amendments to Risch’s bill would be handled in committee.

Risch has agreed to give Menendez’s Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, which would temporarily suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and impose new sanctions, a vote as an amendment to his forthcoming bill. With both Graham and Young supporting the Menendez bill, they could win a majority within the committee to swap out Risch’s legislation for theirs before sending it to the full Senate. 

A Senate aide separately told The Hill that a broader agreement had not yet been worked out among committee leadership about how to handle amendments beyond the commitment for Menendez to get a vote. A second aide added that amendments were expected to be allowed and that it would be "tough to control that process."

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyProspects for Trump gun deal grow dimmer This week: House jump-starts effort to prevent shutdown Senators struggle to get spending bills off ground as shutdown looms MORE (D-Conn.), a supporter of the Menendez bill, has also been giving feedback to Risch about the legislation as the GOP senator had been drafting the bill. He added that he was “flexible” as they negotiated a final bill and acknowledged that a suspension of arms sales or automatic sanctions might be “too hot” for Risch. 

"As long as the committee's allowed to do its work, I think we could get to a bill that a majority of the committee would support," he added.