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

Congress is poised to push back on President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure 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 MattisPentagon reporters left in dark as Iran tensions escalate Trump officials slow-walk president's order to cut off Central American aid: report Overnight Defense — Presented by Huntington Ingalls Industries — Trump nominates Shanahan as Pentagon chief | House panel advances bill to block military funds for border wall | Trump defends Bolton despite differences MORE and the ensuing mixed signals from the administration over the drawdown, have prompted new bipartisan concerns.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerSenators say they've reached deal on Puerto Rico aid 5 things to watch as Trump, Dems clash over investigations GOP lawmaker: Trump has engaged in multiple actions that 'meet the threshold for impeachment' MORE (D-Md.) mused Tuesday on Trump: “Who knows what his policy on Syria is?”

Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Congressional leaders receive classified briefing on Iran | Trump on war: 'I hope not' | Key Republican calls threats credible | Warren plan targets corporate influence at Pentagon Key Republican 'convinced' Iran threats are credible Overnight Defense: Trump seeks 7M for Pentagon in .5B border funding request | US general says focus in Venezuela is on intel | Biden backs ending US support for Saudi-led war in Yemen 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 RubioTensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Tensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Ending the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean MORE (R-Fla.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischTrump, Europe increasingly at odds on Iran Overnight Defense: Congressional leaders receive classified briefing on Iran | Trump on war: 'I hope not' | Key Republican calls threats credible | Warren plan targets corporate influence at Pentagon Congressional leaders receive classified Iran briefing MORE (R-Idaho), Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate Republicans running away from Alabama abortion law Frustrated GOP senators want answers from Trump on Iran Graham: Trump officials not adequately briefing on Iran threat MORE (R-Colo.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — McConnell, Kaine offer bill to raise tobacco buying age to 21 | Measles outbreak spreads to 24 states | Pro-ObamaCare group launches ad blitz to protect Dems 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) KhannaDem rep: You can't be a Democrat if you don't support abortion, LGBTQ rights House passes drug pricing bills amid ObamaCare row John Cusack calls for Trump's impeachment in Capitol Hill visit MORE (D-Calif.), said in an email.

Khanna, she added, is working with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE (D-Calif.), co-sponsor Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanDems walk Trump trade tightrope Hoyer defends Tlaib Holocaust remarks after criticism from GOP Delta Airlines slammed for poster suggesting employees buy video games instead of paying union dues 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 SmithLet's talk about education and school choice in 2020 Overnight Defense: Lawmakers on edge over Iran tensions | Questions rise after State pulls personnel from Iraq | Senators demand briefing | House panel advances 0B Pentagon spending bill | Warren offers plan on climate threats to military House Dems unveil bill to limit Pentagon's ability to transfer military construction dollars 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.”