The Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a rebuke to its chairman, Jim Risch — and President Donald Trump — when it essentially killed the senator’s bill to chastise Saudi Arabia for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Instead, the panel approved a bill by ranking Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey that Democrats argued would be tougher on Saudi Arabia — and would give Congress a more forceful voice on U.S. foreign policy.
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Risch’s measure would have limited the number of visas to some Saudi government officials and would require the secretary of State to conduct a review of the United States’ relationship with the kingdom. Risch had worked with the Trump administration on the bill and argued it was the only one Trump would sign.
“No hard feelings to anyone, it’s not sour grapes, but I’m interested in spending time on something we can actually do,” Risch, a Republican from Idaho, said.
But other committee members said limiting legislative action to solely what the executive branch will accept is a bad precedent to set.
“Sometimes a veto threat is a threat. Sometimes you’ve got to do what we can do and send a strong message,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said.
Menendez’s bill would block certain arms sales to the kingdom and in-flight refueling of Saudi Arabia’s aircraft. GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Todd Young of Indiana joined Democrats in supporting it.
“I still believe it’s our better option to report out as strong a bill as possible so as to not give the impression that we are simply endorsing the administration’s policy on Saudi Arabia, but to continue to send a message that both parties want a new direction, both in Yemen and in the bilateral relationship,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said.
While Risch offered his legislation in committee, in a twist, Menendez offered his bill as an amendment. Graham and Paul backed that amendment alongside all committee Democrats, spurring Risch to yank the measure from the agenda. The committee at that point had approved Menendez’s bill as a standalone.
The failure of Risch’s bill is a win for Menendez, who had accused the committee chairman of making misleading statements. In June, Menendez announced that he and Risch had reached an agreement to combine their two bills, which would have increased the chances of Menendez’s bill getting a vote on the Senate floor. But Risch said he had agreed only to hold a vote.
It’s unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will bring Menendez’s bill to the floor, though Risch expressed his doubts.
“McConnell does not run bills that are going to get vetoed,” he said.
The failure of Risch’s bill highlights the challenge the Senate still faces in finding a bipartisan way to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of Washington Post journalist Khashoggi, a fierce critic of the kingdom’s government who was living in the U.S. The CIA has concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s vote is the latest attempt to reprimand the Trump administration’s policy toward Saudi Arabia. This session, the Senate has passed bipartisan resolutions disapproving of arms sales to Saudi Arabia without congressional approval and to block U.S. support for the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen’s civil war. Trump has vetoed both measures.
The Senate will vote on overriding Trump’s veto of the arms sales resolution before it leaves for the August recess, but there is not likely to be enough Republican support to overcome Trump’s objection.
“The Saudi foreign policy will be handled by the [executive] branch of government,” Risch said after the markup. “The committee has declined to engage itself.”