Tensions flare amid Saudi fight in Senate

Tensions are boiling over in the Senate amid a deep divide over Saudi Arabia and how much pressure to put on the Trump administration to get tough with Riyadh.

The conflict between Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischTrump moves forward with billion F-16 sale to Taiwan Trump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China Overnight Defense: US exits landmark arms control treaty with Russia | Pentagon vows to 'fully pursue' once-banned missiles | Ratcliffe out as intel pick | Trump signs budget deal that boosts defense | Trump defends North Korea's Kim as 'friend' MORE (R-Idaho) and 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 panel’s top Democrat, is threatening to sour the committee’s long-standing bipartisan nature, with one aide describing the standoff as “World War III.”

The source of the dispute stems from a decision by the chairman to schedule committee votes for Thursday on two competing measures related to the U.S.-Saudi relationship — one from Risch, the other from Menendez.

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The move sparked backlash from Democrats who argued it violated a deal Menendez and Risch made on how to handle the Saudi legislation. Moving forward without Menendez’s backing would break a long-standing committee tradition of the chairman always securing the ranking member’s support before voting on a bill.

Menendez said he was “deeply concerned” about the fallout if they can’t reach an agreement about how to move forward. He added that he has relayed his concerns to Risch.

“Comity has worked to make the committee, up until now, one of the most bipartisan committees in the Senate, even in the face of the sea of partisanship,” Menendez told The Hill. “So I am deeply concerned about how the committee will operate.”

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyHobbled NRA shows strength with Trump Overnight 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 MORE (D-Conn.) said the Foreign Relations Committee is “unique” because of its bipartisan nature.

“A lot of us would like to see that continue,” he added.

Democrats say Menendez and Risch had agreed that the chairman’s bill would be the base for any Saudi legislation and that Menendez would be able to offer his legislation, which is backed by GOP Sens. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungOvernight 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 Senate fails to override Trump veto on Saudi arms sale GOP chairman yanks Saudi bill after Democrats muscle through tougher language MORE (Ind.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Cindy McCain says no one in Republican Party carries 'voice of reason' after husband's death Trump says he'll decide on foreign aid cuts within a week MORE (S.C.), as an amendment.

Under the new setup, the committee could end up advancing two bills, with Democrats worrying that Senate GOP leaders will prioritize the Republican measure.

“We’re doing the best we can to work with everybody. Obviously, people have ideas of what they want to do,” Risch said, asked about Democratic complaints about “comity.”

“People can vote for both bills,” Risch said when asked if he would consider merging the bills or dropping one of them.

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Risch has also disputed Menendez’s characterization of their deal, saying he agreed to give his bill a vote, not that it would specifically be as an amendment.

The Menendez bill requires sanctions within 30 days on anyone involved in the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, including “any official of the government of Saudi Arabia or member of the royal family” determined to be involved.

The measure also would require a report within 30 days on the kingdom’s human rights record. And to help address the Yemen crisis, the legislation would suspend U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Risch’s bill, which is also backed by Democratic Sens. 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 (Del.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSunday shows - Recession fears dominate Lewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' Lewandowski says he's 'happy' to testify before House panel MORE (N.H.), would force a “comprehensive review” of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, in addition to denying or revoking visas to members of the Saudi royal family who serve in the Saudi government in positions equivalent to a deputy secretary or agency chief.

Risch argued that his bill is more likely to be signed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE.

The Senate has passed resolutions this year to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen and block an arms deal. Trump vetoed the Yemen resolution and the resolutions blocking his arms deal.

“I’ve spent a long time talking with the president about this, I mean a long time. I know what … we can pass that will become part of the foreign policy of the United States and what can’t pass,” Risch said.

But with a majority supporting the Menendez-Young bill, Democrats were expected to try to muscle through tougher Saudi legislation. Murphy acknowledged the tensions between Risch and Menendez but questioned if it would impact the outcome of Thursday's meeting.

“I don’t know that that changes the outcome because you can’t stop members from offering amendments,” Murphy said. “There’s a bipartisan majority in the committee to report out a bill that’s stronger than Sen. Risch’s bill.”

Menendez, Risch and their staffs have been locked in talks this week to try to find an offramp for a showdown on Thursday. The two committee leaders were also spotted having an intense discussion on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Menendez on Wednesday said they are “closer” to an agreement but “not there yet.” Risch said they have had “lots of conversations” and that talks were expected to continue ahead of Thursday’s meeting to try to get a deal.

The fallout over Saudi Arabia comes as members of the panel are also sparring over high-profile Trump nominees, including Kelly Craft, the president’s nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Craft’s nomination is also on Thursday’s agenda.

“The committee has largely tried to operate where the agenda is always set by an agreement between the ranking member and chairman, and Sen. Risch has tried to keep to that agreement. But the challenge really becomes when you start getting a backlog on ambassador nominees ... and you can’t get any movement on them,” said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads What the gun safety debate says about Washington Trump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China MORE (R-Fla.).

He added that there were “some tensions on the details of the Saudi bills as well.” 

In retaliation for Risch moving forward without their signoff, Democrats have filed roughly 400 amendments to legislation that’s on the agenda. Most of those amendments, according to a Democratic aide, are for the two Saudi bills.

Menendez vowed that without an agreement to de-escalate tensions with Risch and restore “comity,” Democrats would force the panel to vote on each of the amendments “as long as is necessary.”

Asked about the tensions between Menendez and Risch and how it would play out Thursday, Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineA lesson of the Trump, Tlaib, Omar, Netanyahu affair Warren's pledge to avoid first nuclear strike sparks intense pushback Almost three-quarters say minimum age to buy tobacco should be 21: Gallup MORE (D-Va.) indicated it hadn’t been worked out yet. 

“I don’t think it’s quite resolved yet,” he said. “So you’ve got to buy your ticket and come and see what happens.”