Over GOP Chair’s Objections, Senate Panel Advances Saudi Sanctions

Over GOP Chair’s Objections, Senate Panel Advances Saudi Sanctions

By:  Harrison Cramer
National Journal

A bipartisan group of senators voted Thursday to advance legislation that would punish Saudi Arabia, over the objections of the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, hitting what could be the high watermark for action in the upper chamber.

The vote caps a turbulent period for the committee, with members divided over how to penalize the kingdom for its prosecution of the war in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The committee opted Thursday to support ranking member Bob Menendez’s plan over an alternative from Chairman James Risch.
Supporters say the Menendez bill sends a strong message to Riyadh.

The bill would suspend the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, and it would also require the imposition of sanctions against those found responsible for the Khashoggi murder. Before the vote, Menendez said Congress needed to pass legislation so that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is not "high-fiving Putin at the next G20 summit."
But the bill is likely to stall before reaching the Senate floor. After the hearing, Risch said he would “absolutely not” push Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take up the proposal, and he told reporters he intended to “move on” from Saudi-specific policy.

“Listen, there’s 200 countries on the planet,” Risch said. “We've got lots of work to do.”
Risch had introduced an alternative bill that instructed the president to revoke or deny visas to members of the Saudi royal family, and which would have required reports from the executive branch on the kingdom’s human-rights abuses. He pitched the bill as a middle-of-the-road alternative that President Trump might sign into law.

But he withdrew his bill after Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham voted with Democrats to tack on the Menendez bill as an amendment.
"It's no longer my bill. I will be withdrawing my bill," Risch said.
Graham, Paul, and GOP Sen. Todd Young, who helped push the bill forward, joined Democrats to pass the Menendez bill independently.
Debate over the two bills, and Saudi policy overall, has shaped Risch’s short chairmanship and exposed a number of rifts between members of the committee. Most notably, members disagree sharply over how to legislate under the threat of a veto.

Trump vetoed three joint resolutions Wednesday that would have blocked $8 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, informing Congress that they would “weaken America’s global competitiveness and damage the important relationships we share with our allies and partners.” Menendez introduced the resolutions last month after Trump announced he would bypass the congressional arms-sale review process to expedite the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He is expected to veto any standalone legislation cutting off sales.

Risch has suggested that the committee should adapt accordingly and “participate in the formation of foreign policy.” He received input on his bill from the White House and the State Department but did not say whether Trump would support it.
“It’s kind of an example of cutting off your nose to spite your face,” Sen. Marco Rubio told National Journal of the committee vote. “... Not only was [Risch’s] bill going to send a strong message, but it had a chance to become law.
“They wanted to attach things to it they knew would be fatal,” Rubio added. “They chose to do so anyway—as is their right.”
Supporters of the Menendez bill say sending a stronger message to Riyadh is more important, regardless of how Trump acts.

“I would rather that we come to an agreement—Republicans and Democrats—about what … this policy should be, regardless of whether the executive is prepared to sign it or not,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said during the hearing. “And … I still believe it’s our better option to report out as strong as possible.”
Sen. Tim Kaine agreed, and recalled an incident when he said President Obama had brought him into the Oval Office and threatened to veto the Iranian Nuclear Review Act in 2015, only to later “back down” in the face of bipartisan opposition.

“I think this [is] one where we gotta do what we gotta do,” Kaine said.
Outside groups like the Arms Control Association, Oxfam, and Win Without War support the Menendez bill, which may send a message to National Defense Authorization Act conferees who have to decide whether to retain language cutting off sales. Trump would presumably be more hesitant to veto the annual NDAA.

Kate Kizer, policy director at Win Without War, said the committee vote showed that “the robust accountability legislation that made it into the House version of the fiscal year 2020 NDAA should be included in the final conference version of that bill.”

The Saudi legislation also deepened the political rift between Risch and Menendez. The chair and ranking member feuded earlier this week over the timing and terms of the meeting, which was originally scheduled for Tuesday. Menendez accused Risch of violating “comity” by scheduling the hearing over his opposition.

“Comity is not the mere acquiescence to the will of the majority,” Menendez said during the meeting. “Comity is a deliberative, and consultative, negotiated process in which the majority and the minority come together to form the pathway forward to consensus.”

Risch said during the meeting that “250” amendments had been filed to his bill but that there were “no sour grapes” over the final vote. He also pledged to take up legislation from Democratic Sen. Chris Coons requiring the Director of National Intelligence to assign responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder. Identical legislation passed the House, 405-7, and was included in the lower chamber’s version of the 2020 defense bill.

When asked if he expected McConnell to take up Coons’s bill, Risch responded: “No, no.