Congress poised to push back at Trump on Saudi Arabia, Syria

Congress is poised to push back on President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE’s Middle East policy as several developments have left lawmakers increasingly concerned about the administration’s national security strategy.

Democrats who now control the House were already vowing to check Trump’s defense agenda, particularly policies seen as overly deferential to Saudi Arabia after its leader sanctioned the slaying of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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But Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, along with the subsequent resignation of Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOnly Donald Trump has a policy for Afghanistan New Pentagon report blames Trump troop withdrawal for ISIS surge in Iraq and Syria Mattis returns to board of General Dynamics MORE and the ensuing mixed signals from the administration over the drawdown, have prompted new bipartisan concerns.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerLiberal Democrat eyes aid cuts to Israel after Omar, Tlaib denied entry Lawmakers blast Trump as Israel bars door to Tlaib and Omar Israel denies Omar and Tlaib entry after Trump tweet MORE (D-Md.) mused Tuesday on Trump: “Who knows what his policy on Syria is?”

Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryPentagon chief denies White House hand in 'war cloud' contract probe U.S. and U.K. divide increases on Iran Republican lawmakers issue dueling letters over Pentagon 'war cloud' contract MORE (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, suggested the possibility of hearings on Syria.

“It may be one of those issues that would be appropriate to have a hearing on to see exactly what the administration intends to do and when,” he told reporters in response to a question from The Hill. “I think currently there are a fair number of folks here and around the world trying to figure out what we’re going to do and when. And I don’t have any good answers.”

Thornberry previously has expressed concern about a “precipitous” withdrawal.

In the Senate, the chamber Tuesday night took a procedural vote on a bill that would impose sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, bolster defense cooperation with Israel and Jordan and discourage boycotts against Israel.

Democrats blocked the otherwise bipartisan bill over the unrelated government shutdown, and the bill does not directly address U.S. military posture in Syria. But its timing as the Senate’s first bill of the new Congress on the heels of Trump’s Syria announcement has been seen as the upper chamber working to reassert itself on foreign policy.

The bill, which was fast-tracked to the floor, is backed by Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move MORE (R-Fla.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischTrump 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' The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal MORE (R-Idaho), Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down MORE (R-Colo.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAre Democrats turning Trump-like? House Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' Churches are arming and training congregants in response to mass shootings: report MORE (R-Ky.).

“There is no question that we continue to face serious challenges from al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria as well as from Iran, Russia and the Assad regime itself,” McConnell said on the Senate floor when announcing the bill. “And I anticipate this body will debate U.S. military strategy toward Syria in the coming weeks as it conducts oversight over the administration’s apparently ongoing review of its Syria policy.”

House Democrats have devoted the first days of the new Congress to passing bills to reopen the partially closed government, but supporters of a resolution withdrawing U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war say their plans for a quick vote are still on track.

“Things are still very much in progress despite the shutdown,” Heather Purcell, a spokeswoman for Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaKing incites furor with abortion, rape and incest remarks San Jose mayor proposes mandatory liability insurance for gun owners Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax MORE (D-Calif.), said in an email.

Khanna, she added, is working with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiAre Democrats turning Trump-like? Pelosi hits Trump, Netanyahu for 'weakness' amid tensions over Omar and Tlaib In Hong Kong, the need for peaceful persistence MORE (D-Calif.), co-sponsor Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanTrump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move Liberal Democrat eyes aid cuts to Israel after Omar, Tlaib denied entry Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax MORE (D-Wis.), the House Rules Committee and its staff and Senate staff “for a coordinated introduction and getting all the pieces lined up for a quick and successful vote.”

The Senate approved a resolution in the last Congress, but the bill went nowhere in the GOP House.

Trump’s Middle East stance first drew widespread ire from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers following the Oct. 2 killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of Saudi leadership.

The Trump administration sanctioned individuals believed to be connected to Khashoggi’s death, but the president has cited the importance of economic and diplomatic ties with the kingdom in opting not to proceed with more severe punishments.

With the House in Democratic hands and the Senate held by a GOP majority, it may be difficult for Congress to speak with one voice when it comes to opposing Trump on policies surrounding Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

“Outside the Khashoggi affair, I don’t see a lot of unity,” said Jim Phillips, a Middle Eastern affairs expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“There may be more unity on that than on other issues, and that’s necessary because Congress can only have a major impact on the administration if it’s unified,” he told The Hill.

At the same time, a pushback to Trump’s quick drawdown in Syria from Republicans, Democrats, foreign allies and voices within the administration appears to have, at a minimum, slowed the process.

While Trump first said troops would leave Syria “now,” national security adviser John Bolton over the weekend announced two conditions that could push a withdrawal back for months: the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and a deal with Turkey for the protection of the Kurds.

Trump denied any changes in his policy, saying on Twitter there was nothing “different from my original statements” and that “we will be leaving at a proper pace.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to get a closed-door briefing on Syria on Thursday.

The Senate could also be afforded another opportunity to prod Trump’s Middle East plans during a potential confirmation fight over the next Defense secretary.

Trump has indicated he is in no rush to nominate a replacement for Mattis. But if and when he does, senators are expected to grill the nominee on their concerns about Trump’s direction in the region.

Congress may also try to hear from Mattis himself in the coming months. Mattis is expected to maintain a low profile now that he has left the administration; he has not said anything publicly since the memo he released his last day on the job.

But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithWarren's pledge to avoid first nuclear strike sparks intense pushback Landmark US-Russia arms control treaty poised for final blow Young Democrats look to replicate Ocasio-Cortez's primary path MORE (D-Wash.) has said he’d like Mattis to testify before his committee, though not about his differences with Trump.

“I understand and I respect that a president has a right to private counsel from his top advisers,” Smith said on ABC News. “I’m not going to call former Secretary Mattis to say, you know, what did the president say about this, what did he do about that? But Secretary Mattis is one of the most knowledgeable, capable experts we have on defense policy and foreign policy.”