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 RischThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal MORE (R-Idaho) and Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezLobbying world This week: Congress starts summer sprint The Innovation and Competition Act is progressive policy 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 MurphyDemocrats ramp up pressure for infrastructure deal amid time crunch Democrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan Overnight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia 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 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill MORE (Ind.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill 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 CoonsBottom line Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law Key Biden ally OK with dropping transit from infrastructure package MORE (Del.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Clean power repurposes dirty power CIA watchdog to review handling of 'Havana syndrome' cases Frustration builds as infrastructure talks drag 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 TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away 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 RubioBreak glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand foreign aid partnerships 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 KaineOvernight Defense: Watchdog blasts government's handling of Afghanistan conflict | Biden asks Pentagon to look into mandatory vaccines | Congress passes new Capitol security bill GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand foreign aid partnerships 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.”