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

Congress is poised to push back on President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about plans to build Trump Tower in Moscow during 2016 campaign: report DC train system losing 0k per day during government shutdown Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees 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 MattisMacron: US 'retreat from Syria' won't change mission to eradicate ISIS Poll: Most Americans want US troops in Syria Fox's Griffin: Was told by diplomat that Syria attack was 'direct result' of US pullout decision MORE and the ensuing mixed signals from the administration over the drawdown, have prompted new bipartisan concerns.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction Trump fires back at Pelosi, cancels her foreign travel Democrats will push to retake vote on funding government after chaos on the floor MORE (D-Md.) mused Tuesday on Trump: “Who knows what his policy on Syria is?”

Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryDems express alarm at Trump missile defense plans Dems seek House panel's support to block military funds for Trump border wall Syria too complex to make decisions in 280 characters … even for a president 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 RubioSenate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal Bipartisan senators reintroduce bill to prevent Trump from withdrawing from NATO MORE (R-Fla.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischCongress poised to push back at Trump on Saudi Arabia, Syria Senate poised to rebut Trump on Syria Trump's military moves accelerate GOP search for next McCain MORE (R-Idaho), Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal Bipartisan senators reintroduce bill to prevent Trump from withdrawing from NATO MORE (R-Colo.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees McConnell blocks bill to reopen most of government Overnight Health Care: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated | Senate rejects bill to permanently ban federal funds for abortion | Women's March to lobby for 'Medicare for All' 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 proposes Trump, Congress hire mediators to resolve shutdown Blue states buck Trump to expand health coverage Ocasio-Cortez sparks debate with talk of 70 percent marginal rate MORE (D-Calif.), said in an email.

Khanna, she added, is working with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiOvernight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal McConnell blocks bill to reopen most of government Overnight Health Care: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated | Senate rejects bill to permanently ban federal funds for abortion | Women's March to lobby for 'Medicare for All' MORE (D-Calif.), co-sponsor Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanDems offer measure to raise minimum wage to per hour House Dems to introduce minimum wage bill Congress poised to push back at Trump on Saudi Arabia, Syria 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 SmithOvernight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal Dems express alarm at Trump missile defense plans Dems seek House panel's support to block military funds for Trump border wall 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.”