Midterms poised to shake up US-Saudi defense ties

Midterms poised to shake up US-Saudi defense ties
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The midterm elections could bring critical changes to U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

Democrats, if they win back the House majority, are expected to try to reverse major decisions President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE made in support of the Yemen war. And their hand has been strengthened by the uproar over the killing of a journalist at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. 


Democrats would have a limited ability to enact change with Trump in the White House and the Senate likely to remain in GOP hands. But the party is expected to try and flex its muscle on a number of foreign policy and national security issues, including support for the Yemen war, oversight of special operations missions, border wall funding and building low-yield nuclear weapons.

Here are some of the key issues at stake in Tuesday's midterm vote. 


Saudi defense aid

If Democrats do manage to take over leadership of the House and Senate armed services committees, reining in defense aid to Saudi Arabia appears to be a top goal.

U.S. aid to the Saudi Arabian–led coalition in Yemen’s four-year civil war, including intelligence sharing, aerial refueling and billions of dollars in weapons sales, has come under increased scrutiny as the civilian death toll spikes in the country.

The Oct. 2 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has further inflamed tensions, with more lawmakers on both sides of the aisle now calling for an end to U.S. military involvement in Yemen and separately, limiting or stopping arms sales to the Saudis.

Some Republicans, for their part, are calling for the administration to limit further talks with the Saudis on a nuclear energy agreement for now. A group of five senators this week urged President Trump to suspend negotiations with the Saudis on such a deal.

The Democrats, however, have been the most active in trying to limit or halt defense support.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) is leading a group of House Democrats on a War Powers Resolution that would end U.S. military support to the country. They are looking to force a vote in November, though Khanna said last month he expects it to either fail or for Republicans to refuse to bring it to a vote.

But if Democrats take back the House in the midterms, they can bring it back in January.

The resolution is co-sponsored by House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), as well as House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

On the Senate side, Armed Services committee ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), called Yemen an issue of “national importance,” that “can’t wait” until next year’s defense policy bill.

A bipartisan group of 21 House lawmakers, meanwhile, earlier this month introduced a bill to stop all military sales and aid to Riyadh.

Led by House Rules Committee ranking member Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the bill takes aim at the possible $110 billion arms package Trump announced last May.

“With the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it’s time for the United States to halt all weapons sales and military aid to Saudi Arabia. Our democratic values are on the line here – and we need to step up as a country and do the right thing,” McGovern said in a statement.


Special forces oversight

Little known U.S. special operations missions across the globe were thrown into the spotlight after an ambush in Niger killed four U.S. soldiers last year.

Since then, Smith, who could get the House Armed Services Committee gavel, has said he would push for Congress to assert a more prominent oversight role on special operations largely unknown to the American public.

Smith and other Democratic leaders worry that Trump has given the Pentagon too much free rein on military operations without public scrutiny. They have called for the repeal of the post-2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force rule and replacing it with guidelines for sending troops overseas.

“Niger was supposed to be [a] train and equip [mission]. But in a lot of those places, our guys are getting out front ... without proper congressional oversight, I think even without proper Pentagon or White House oversight,” Smith said.


Troops on the border

The Pentagon earlier this month revealed a tentative plan to send 800 troops to the U.S.- Mexico border to help Customs and Border Patrol handle a caravan of migrants from Central America.

Last week that number ballooned to 5,200, then 7,000, with Trump announcing the administration could eventually send up to 15,000 troops. That figure is even more than the 14,000 stationed in Afghanistan.

Trump has repeatedly promised to use the military to push back at illegal immigration – accusing Democrats of allowing violent criminals to enter the country by refusing to fund his border wall plans.

But Democrats are pushing back at the rhetoric. Former President Obama, who is campaigning for candidates in the midterms, said Trump was "taking our brave troops away from their families for a political stunt" at a rally in Miami on Friday.

The fight over border funding is expected to heat up again in the lame duck session. Republicans have already shown a willingness to fund Trump’s wall. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales Shanahan: 'No concerns' about FBI background check for nomination MORE (R-Okla.), this week offered a bill that would prevent undocumented immigrants from getting government benefits and tax credits.

The WALL Act would use the savings to “fully fund the President’s $25 billion border wall,” according to the bill’s summary.

But Democrats have made clear they oppose putting the military at the border and will fight wall construction. Lawmakers have asked Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTop nuclear official quietly left Pentagon in April Top nuclear official quietly left Pentagon in April Overnight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One MORE to reject a request by the Department of Homeland Security to use $450 million to bolster existing border fencing and build new fencing along the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona, which runs 31 miles along the southern border.


Trump’s nuclear plans

House and Senate armed services committee Democrats lost a fight last year to halt a new low-yield nuclear warhead the Trump administration hopes to develop, as well as plans to fund a more robust nuclear arsenal.

The administration argues it needs the warhead, which would be used on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, for deterrence purposes.

But Democrats insist building such a warhead would increase the odds nuclear weapons could be used.

This year's annual defense policy bill authorized the low-yield device and the Energy Department spending bill included $65 million to get the project off the ground. Democrats hope to get another chance to kill the project next year.

Smith has listed the issue as a top priority if the House flips, while Reed has said that the low-yield weapon issue “might come back for reevaluation and review.”

“We also think the idea of low-yield nuclear weapons are extremely problematic going forward,” Smith said at the Defense News conference. “When we look at the larger budget picture, that’s not the best place to spend the money.”