Nine months after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Congress remains at a loss for how to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.
Democrats and many Republicans agree that the U.S. must retaliate, citing the conclusion from U.S. intelligence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder. But so far, President Donald Trump has consistently vetoed or threatened to veto the Senate’s attempts to block arms sales to the kingdom or end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s bloody civil war.
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Saudi Arabia will again come to the forefront Wednesday, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing on the Trump administration’s use of emergency authority to sell arms to the kingdom. The hearing comes as committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) is working on his own bill to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, which could be considered as soon as next week.
Risch, who faces a nearly impossible task of pushing through legislation that’s deemed tough enough on Saudi Arabia but that Trump will sign, has yet to release details of his bill. He said in a brief interview Tuesday that more information will be available “in the next 48 hours” but declined to comment further on amendments.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, has his own bipartisan bill that would block certain arms sales to Saudi Arabia and in-flight refueling of Saudi aircraft to hold the kingdom accountable. Last month, Menendez announced that he and Risch reached an agreement to consider his bill.
“The chairman has a bill, we have a bill, and we’ll have a markup and we’ll see how it goes,” Menendez said Tuesday. “I intend to offer the bipartisan bill that we have as a substitute for his bill. I believe that we have the votes.”
This session, the Senate has passed bipartisan resolutions disapproving of arms sales to Saudi Arabia without congressional approval and withdrawing U.S. forces from the Saudi-backed coalition involved in the war in Yemen.
Trump vetoed the Yemen resolution and is expected to veto the arms sales resolution. Neither of the resolutions has garnered enough support for veto override, bringing bipartisan skepticism of the possibility of any legislation addressing Saudi Arabia this Congress.
“My worry is that anything the president is willing to sign likely has to endorse his existing Saudi Arabia policy, and so I’m not sure how Congress squares that circle,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who emphasized he has not seen Risch’s bill. “I’m not sure that there’s anything worthwhile to say on Saudi Arabia if it isn’t forcing a change in the administration’s policy.”
“As long as President Trump refuses to take any substantive or serious action to hold Saudi Arabia accountable and Mitch McConnell is leader of the Senate, I am very skeptical,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), when asked whether he thought the Senate would do anything to punish the kingdom.
The majority of Senate Republicans have opposed the legislative efforts, citing the importance the country places as a regional counter to Iran. But the issue has created a divide within the party, with some Republican senators voting with the Democratic Caucus on the resolutions of disapproval, often based on their agreement that the Trump administration needs Congress’ authorization to sell arms to Saudi Arabia or to remain involved the military conflict in Yemen.
Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), a co-sponsor of the Menendez bill and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged that Risch faces an uphill task when it comes to drafting a consensus bill.
“He’s trying to come up with an agreement that brings together the administration position and that of a few other members of our committee on the one hand and of Sen. Menendez and myself on the other which is not an easy sort of chasm to be able to bridge,” Young said.
He added that it’s unclear whether the Senate will pass a substantive bill this session.
Some Republican senators think the Senate has already done enough to condemn Khashoggi’s murder and that too much retaliation against Saudi Arabia could hurt the United States in the long run.
“They obviously made a miscalculation on Khashoggi but I think we’ve expressed ourselves about to the extent we can short of self-inflicted wound,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “Obviously, they’re a monarchy; they’re not a democracy. They don’t follow the same rules or values that we do.”