The Senate is poised to respond to the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi with a historic vote next week aimed at ending U.S. support for Saudi hostilities in Yemen — but it will almost certainly take until next year before sweeping changes to Saudi policy stand a chance of clearing Congress.
Growing momentum to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for ordering Khashoggi’s killing — and rebuke President Trump for supporting Mohammed’s denials — is running into a traditional biannual roadblock: the end of the congressional session. With only days left on the legislative calendar, leaders are loath to devote precious floor time to anything that isn’t already a must-do — a limitation that threatens to leave the most substantive Saudi proposals unaddressed.
“We don’t have time this year,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said, ticking off the major proposals on offer: sanctions for Saudi officials, a moratorium on weapons transfers, official condemnation of the crown prince and a move to end U.S. involvement in Saudi’s Yemen campaign. Somewhere between them all, Graham guessed, lies a compromise bill that can secure veto-proof support.
But striking the balance will take time, and “I just don’t think we have time to do all that right now,” Graham said.
The only Saudi-related measure that the Senate is guaranteed to take up this year is a resolution from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) to invoke the War Powers Act and end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
Passing the Yemen resolution would send a powerful political signal, though some senators dispute how much it could affect U.S.-Saudi cooperation, following the Trump adminsitration’s decision last month to stop refueling Saudi planes. Washington continues to provide Saudi Arabia with intelligence and logistical support.
Nonetheless, the resolution secured an unprecedented 63 votes last week to clear an opening procedural hurdle, and if it remains largely unchanged, is expected to sustain enough support to proceed past the Senate, according to both its supporters and critics. But odds are lawmakers will not be able to force House leaders to give it a vote before the end of the year — and there is nothing preventing Trump from vetoing the measure.
The Yemen resolution is also an unlikely vehicle for other Saudi-related legislation seeking to deliver punitive blows to the kingdom. In order not to lose support for the resolution, senators are planning to narrowly limit the scope of amendments that can be attached to it — and supporters say no other Saudi-related legislation will make the cut.
The only way to include something like a sanctions bill “would be to open the door to all types of amendments, and that would be a disaster,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who co-authored a bill to sanction Saudi officials and end weapons transfers with Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), Graham and others.
That leaves only one other potential vehicle open to Saudi legislation: a spending bill that Congress must pass by Dec. 21. But leading appropriators simply do not want to weigh it down.
“The fewer things we put on the approps bill, the better chance of passage,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said Thursday. “I’d rather deal with appropriations for the most part and keep legislation off, anywhere I can.”
Against that backdrop, a bipartisan group of senators met Thursday morning to hash out how best to proceed with efforts to counter Saudi Arabia and circumvent Trump’s reluctance to criticize its leader. Republican lawmakers emerged from it agitating for a committee markup next week to improve sanctions legislation and try to build support for it from across the political spectrum.
“If nothing else, if we could just roll out a new product that get 60 co-sponsors, that’d be a good place to start … it’s the product that becomes your jumping-off point for next year,” Graham said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who is retiring at the end of the year, also advocated a full-steam-ahead approach, reasoning it would only make it easier to revive legislation down the line.
“It’s not like it’s going away, I mean this is going to be brought back up next year,” Corker said.
But many lawmakers are worried that Corker’s successor, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) will not be as amenable to moving Saudi measures through the Senate. While Corker is one of Trump’s biggest critics, Risch is one of his closest congressional allies, and known for being a staunch partisan.
But in an interview Thursday, Risch indicated that whatever his personal preferences on dealing with Saudi Arabia might be, he would seek to honor consensus on the issue.
“The consensus seems to be this isn’t going to go away until there’s something done,” he said.