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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 RischJim Elroy RischBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official MORE (R-Idaho) and Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick Senate presses Biden's pick for secretary of State on Iran, China, Russia and Yemen Year-end deal creates American Latino, women's history museums 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 MurphyTensions running high after gun incident near House floor Democrats float 14th Amendment to bar Trump from office Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee 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 YoungThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief Senators vet Buttigieg to run Transportation Department MORE (Ind.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Trump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair 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 CoonsChris Andrew CoonsDemocrats seek answers on impact of Russian cyberattack on Justice Department, Courts Senators introduce bill to award Officer Goodman the Congressional Gold Medal Senate chaos threatens to slow Biden's agenda MORE (Del.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenBipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief Bipartisan group of senators: The election is over Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 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 TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 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 RubioSunday shows - Biden agenda, Trump impeachment trial dominate Rubio: Trump impeachment trial is 'stupid' The Memo: Biden gambles that he can do it all 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 KaineLawmakers move to oust extremists from military Trump impeachment trial to begin week of Feb. 8 Democrats float 14th Amendment to bar Trump from office 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.”