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 RischGOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria Lawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban Senators condemn UN 'blacklisting' of US companies in Israeli settlements MORE (R-Idaho) and Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezMenendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees Senators condemn UN 'blacklisting' of US companies in Israeli settlements Media's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle 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 MurphyLawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response Schumer: Trump coronavirus response marked by 'towering and dangerous incompetence' The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders steamrolls to South Carolina primary, Super Tuesday 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 YoungLobbying World Republican Senate campaign arm hauled in over million in January The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (Ind.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders takes incoming during intense SC debate Congress eyes killing controversial surveillance program Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far 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 CoonsDemocratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe Graham warned Pentagon chief about consequences of Africa policy: report Democrats fear rule of law crumbling under Trump MORE (Del.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Health Care: Appeals court strikes down Medicaid work requirements | Pelosi's staff huddles with aides on surprise billing | Senate Dems pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit Senate Democrats pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit Trump under pressure to renew last nuke treaty with Russia 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 TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes 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 RubioOvernight Energy: Critics pile on Trump plan to roll back major environmental law | Pick for Interior No. 2 official confirmed | JPMorgan Chase to stop loans for fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic MacGregor confirmed as Interior deputy chief GOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman 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 KaineTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Republicans give Barr vote of confidence The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in 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.”