Congress is about to put historic pressure on Saudi Arabia for the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, its devastating military campaign in its desperately poor neighboring country of Yemen and other excesses, such as the alleged torture and sexual assault of detained female activists ― unless Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his lieutenants intervene.
It’s a critical test of whether the U.S. can hold foreign partners accountable for repugnant and destabilizing behavior enabled by American security guarantees and a potentially telling moment for a Republican Party that presents its hawkish approach to global affairs as fundamentally moral.
Over the next two weeks, the Democrat-controlled House will finalize its version of this year’s defense authorization act, a piece of legislation that’s often called “must-pass” because it greenlights continued funding for the military.
Lawmakers skeptical of the Saudis are focused on three amendments to the bill: a yearlong ban on selling U.S. bombs to Riyadh and its chief partner in the bloody Yemen intervention, the United Arab Emirates; no more money for the two main aspects of U.S. support for that effort, intelligence-sharing and logistical help; and a requirement for the Trump administration to name all people it knows to be involved in the assassination of Khashoggi and place sanctions on them ― a move that would likely target people beyond the 17 Saudi officials already blacklisted for the murder and possibly affect even the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Although many Democrats and a handful of Republicans have spent months criticizing the prince for his reported role in the killing and have spent years highlighting alleged war crimes and the development of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Capitol Hill hasn’t yet formally penalized Saudi Arabia. It instead has advanced historic but largely symbolic measures to signal disapproval. President Donald Trump used an emergency declaration in May to torpedo the policy with the greatest real-world impact, a hold that Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) placed last year on $2 billion worth of weapons for the Saudis and the UAE.
Angry with Trump’s disregard for legally enshrined procedure on arms sales and still eager to show Riyadh that misdeeds have consequences, members of Congress see the process of passing the defense bill as a way to force change.
“I’m reasonably confident that we can get it done in the House,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who authored the amendments on arms sales and sanctions.
Support from mainstream Democratic leaders is bolstering Malinowski’s suggestions and Rep. Ro Khanna’s (D-Calif.) bill to defund U.S. assistance in Yemen. House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who’s usually been sympathetic to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations competing with Iran, supports Malinowki’s amendments, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who runs the House Intelligence Committee, has blessed Khanna’s plan, which will help weaken the common criticism that cutting off intelligence support for the Yemen campaign threatens important counterterrorism work. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who as chair of the House Rules Committee plays a big role in deciding what legislation gets considered, has long called for the U.S. to reassess its cozy relationship with the Saudis.
There could be tweaks and snafus in the process of getting the amendments attached to the defense bill. One or all could be put up for a vote by the full House to signal strong support, including from Republicans, rather than simply passed in leadership’s package of scores of non-controversial additions. Other Saudi-related initiatives currently receiving less attention could attract sudden interest. And arguments between progressives and centrists over the total approved defense spending could delay passage of the overall legislation.
But the real dispute will come when representatives of the two chambers gather to reconcile their versions of the defense bill and craft a compromise that can make it to Trump’s desk. This is the first time in this presidency that one of these measures has had to make it through a House and Senate controlled by different parties.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is a key Republican in the process as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “doesn’t want to do anything related to Yemen,” said Kate Kizer, the policy director at the nonprofit Win Without War. “It’ll be a battle.”
McConnell, Inhofe and other GOP power players on foreign policy, such as Sen. Jim Risch (Idaho), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, largely hew to Trump’s line that the U.S. relationship with the Saudis is too important to be derailed over matters like a high-profile murder in a diplomatic facility. Some influential members of the caucus, notably Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), are resisting that kind of cynicism, but most Republicans are following McConnell’s cue.
Come conference time ― when Inhofe, his counterpart Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) negotiate over the final form of the defense bill ― danger looms for the efforts to mandate a change of course by the Saudis and their allies.
“Given McConnell does MBS’ and this White House’s bidding, I’m sure he’ll try to maneuver to keep these provisions out of the final bill [and]... steamroll the House,” a Democratic aide said on condition of anonymity, using a popular acronym for the Saudi prince. “Now with our new majority, we will have key Democratic leaders fighting to keep these provisions in.”
Were Republicans to quash serious restrictions out of concern over U.S. national security and relationships in a strategic region ― or just to avoid angering Trump and big donors in the defense industry ― they would be shielding a dictator and encouraging his ilk to commit even more brutal excesses.
They might not, of course, see that as a problem. The question for the fate of the monthslong congressional campaign for accountability is whether its proponents in the GOP are as serious about justice as they purport to be in public. So far, Risch has felt pressured enough that he has claimed he will offer his own road map for addressing Saudi behavior, but Young has struggled to advance a bill he and Menendez designed to alter Saudi behavior.
McConnell’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
For Democrats, what counts is how much they prioritize the measures during dealmaking as they throw their revitalized strength behind other major concerns, such as preventing a war with Iran and challenging Trump’s ban on transgender service members, and whether the party can keep its own disparate ideological factions united while securing the kind of limited GOP support it has had in the past on Saudi-related issues.
Engel’s decision to support the weapon transfer ban was a striking turn that suggested a more assertive approach from leadership after he abandoned an effort to present a bill with a high-ranking Republican that would have been more lenient to the Saudis. His choice also reflects the party’s shifting dynamics: as Engel faces two primary challengers who are blasting him as a hawk, the 16-term lawmaker “has a new sense of urgency,” a peace advocate who is tied into congressional circles told HuffPost.
Antiwar and human rights activists are closely watching whether Reed, the top Democrat on defense issues, will also indicate more support for their causes by fighting to keep an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-UAE Yemen campaign in the bill. (Last year, Trump responded to public pressure over the conflict by ending the clearest element of U.S. assistance: aerial refueling for the Arab states’ bombing sprees. But just months ago, the president vetoed successful bipartisan legislation to pull U.S. forces out of the war altogether.)
Given the furor and discussions among senators of even tougher proposals targeting the Saudis, Republicans could see the Democratic amendments as relatively moderate and something they could support, said Malinowski, who entered Congress just six months ago and who was the main human rights official in President Barack Obama’s State Department.
“I think there’s broad consensus among Democrats, including leadership, that we need to do something,” Malinowski said. “And significant concern on the Republican side as well.”