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

Congress is poised to push back on President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, along with the subsequent resignation of Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden courts veterans amid fallout from Trump military controversies Trump says he wanted to take out Syria's Assad but Mattis opposed it Gary Cohn: 'I haven't made up my mind' on vote for president in November MORE and the ensuing mixed signals from the administration over the drawdown, have prompted new bipartisan concerns.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse Democrats postpone vote on marijuana decriminalization bill Democrats scramble on COVID-19 relief amid division, Trump surprise The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep MORE (D-Md.) mused Tuesday on Trump: “Who knows what his policy on Syria is?”

Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryTrump payroll-tax deferral for federal workers sparks backlash Overnight Defense: Woodward book causes new firestorm | Book says Trump lashed out at generals, told Woodward about secret weapons system | US withdrawing thousands of troops from Iraq Top Armed Services Republican 'dismayed' at Trump comments on military leaders 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 RubioFlorida senators pushing to keep Daylight Savings Time during pandemic Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts Chinese, Malaysian hackers accused of targeting over 100 organizations | GOP senators raise concerns over Oracle-TikTok deal | QAnon awareness jumps in new poll Intelligence chief says Congress will get some in-person election security briefings MORE (R-Fla.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischWhy the US should rely more on strategy, not sanctions Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Senators blast Turkey's move to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque MORE (R-Idaho), Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate Republicans face tough decision on replacing Ginsburg What Senate Republicans have said about election-year Supreme Court vacancies Chamber of Commerce endorses McSally for reelection MORE (R-Colo.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy 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) KhannaThe Hill Interview: Jerry Brown on climate disasters, COVID-19 and Biden's 'Rooseveltian moment' Congress needs to prioritize government digital service delivery DeJoy defends Postal Service changes at combative House hearing MORE (D-Calif.), said in an email.

Khanna, she added, is working with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: Ginsburg successor must uphold commitment to 'equality, opportunity and justice for all' Bipartisan praise pours in after Ginsburg's death Pelosi orders Capitol flags at half-staff to honor Ginsburg MORE (D-Calif.), co-sponsor Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanClark rolls out endorsements in assistant Speaker race Hillicon Valley: Pentagon reaffirms decision to award JEDI contract to Microsoft | Schiff asks officials for briefing on election security threats Democrats explore new ways to resurrect election security briefings 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 SmithWhen 'Buy American' and common sense collide Overnight Defense: Marine Corps brushes off criticism of Marines' appearance in GOP convention video | US troops injured in collision with Russian vehicle in Syria | Dems ask for probe of Vindman retaliation allegations Democrats press Pentagon watchdog to probe allegations of retaliation against Vindman brothers 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.”