Senators Break Ranks Over Saudi Arabia

The Foreign Relations Committee, in a rare breach of decorum, engages in a bitter dispute over how to pressure Riyadh.

U.S. Sen. James Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attends a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 19.
U.S. Sen. James Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attends a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 19. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, traditionally a haven of bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill, has become ensnared in a bitter and rare dispute between its top Republican and Democrat over separate bills on Saudi Arabia.

Both Sen. James Risch, the Republican chairman of the committee, and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee, have accused each other of breaking agreements on how to proceed with two bills that would ramp up pressure on Saudi Arabia following the kingdom’s role in the deadly conflict in Yemen and Saudi officials’ culpability in the 2018 murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The dispute between Risch and Menendez risks unraveling the bipartisan nature of the committee, congressional aides say, and some experts fear it could also undercut Congress’s critical voice on Saudi Arabia over human rights violations in Yemen. 

In a break from long-standing tradition, Risch scheduled a meeting for the committee to vote on the bills this week over the objections of his Democratic counterpart, Menendez. The move angered Democrats, but Republicans said it was necessary to proceed with votes. Historically, Republican and Democratic leaders on the committee have only scheduled meetings once both sides agreed; this tradition of “comity”—based on the belief that politics should stop at the water’s edge—set Foreign Relations apart from nearly all of the other Senate committees that have fallen into increasingly partisan and politicized gridlocks. 

“Blowing comity is equal to going nuclear as far as the fundamental way in which the Foreign Relations Committee has historically been able to work,” said one Democratic Senate aide.

“If [this is] a de facto rule going forward, that’s obviously hugely significant. And it does contribute to the overall corrosion of norms and rules in the Senate that both sides have contributed to,” said Daniel Vajdich, a former Republican aide on the committee and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank. “This is definitely something that would put SFRC in a different category than it’s traditionally been.”

Beyond internal Senate battles, the dispute also represents the latest fight on Capitol Hill to pare back Washington’s cozy relationship with Riyadh under President Donald Trump and curb U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. The conflict in Yemen is considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Risch put forward a bill, backed by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Chris Coons, that would force the secretary of state to conduct a review of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and deny or revoke visas to some members of the Saudi royal family as reprisal for the kingdom’s human rights violations. Republican Senate aides told Foreign Policy that Risch consulted with the White House and State Department on the bill.

Menendez and Republican Sen. Todd Young introduced a bill that takes a harsher line on Riyadh, backed by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins as well as several Democrats. Their bill halts some U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, bars U.S. refueling of Saudi aircraft engaged in Yemen, and puts sanctions on people involved in the murder of Khashoggi. 

Critics of Risch’s bill say it doesn’t go far enough in punishing Saudi Arabia, while critics of the Menendez and Young-led bill say it is doomed to fail, as Trump is expected to veto it. “Risch isn’t trying to be soft on the Saudis, he’s trying to actually do something relevant, he’s trying to reassess the relationship,” one Republican Senate aide said. 

But any hope of a united front may be lost as Risch and Menendez lock horns through arcane Senate rules over how Congress should approach one of the United States’ most controversial partners in the Middle East.

The fight over the dueling Saudi bills began in May, when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advanced arms sales to Saudi Arabia using an obscure emergency provision to override congressional opposition. In a private meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) and Risch in June, two congressional aides say, Menendez agreed to bundle together 22 joint resolutions opposing the arms sales into just several votes to streamline debates on the Senate floor.

In exchange, Risch agreed to bring forward a vote on Menendez’s bill in the committee.

But now Risch and Menendez are disputing exactly what they agreed to. On June 19, Menendez said on the Senate floor, “We have agreed to use [Risch’s] legislation as a base text to which we will be able to offer amendments that reflect the bipartisan consensus contained in my bill.”

Risch disputes this, several Republican Senate aides tell Foreign Policy, saying he agreed to put forward both bills separately. “Risch wants both bills to have an opportunity to vote so both can fly on their own merit. … That’s the legislative process,” one aide said.

Democratic aides say they worry if two bills go forward, McConnell will bring Risch’s bill, which they view as weaker on Saudi Arabia, to the floor, leaving the Menendez and Young bill dead in the water. 

When Risch broke comity by announcing a committee meeting on Thursday to vote on the Saudi bills over Democratic objections, Menendez responded by proposing over 370 amendments to the bills, as well as several other bills set to be voted on in the meeting. Both sides see the other as unwilling to cooperate: “It’s meant to gum up the process, it’s not legislating, it’s just kind of absurd,” said the Republican aide. “This is not a stunt, this simply shows what a post-comity world looks like,” said a Democratic one. 

Risch in the past has voiced support for continuing the committee’s bipartisan tradition. “This committee is somewhat unique in the Senate in light of our longstanding tradition of comity, which provides a road map for how the majority and the minority work together on behalf of the American people,” he said in a committee meeting on Feb. 7, shortly after becoming chairman. “I look forward to continuing this tradition.”

Republican aides said Risch has worked hard to reach across the aisle and cooperate with Democrats, including securing information and testimonies from Trump administration officials at their request.

The dispute between Risch and Menendez won’t only impact the bills on Saudi Arabia. Also caught in the crossfire are other items on the agenda for Thursday’s committee meeting: a batch of nominations for posts in the administration, a resolution on NATO, and a bill that would sanction vessels involved in the construction of a controversial Russian gas pipeline to Germany called Nord Stream 2.

The Trump administration insists U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition is important to curb Iranian influence in the Middle East and confront terrorist threats in Yemen.

“I think it would be a shame if the Yemen-focused legislation ends up going down because of partisan back-and-forth,” said Scott Paul, an expert on the Yemen conflict with the humanitarian group Oxfam America.

“But I think that shouldn’t mask the fact that there’s still a strong bipartisan consensus that No. 1, the crisis is horrific, and No. 2, U.S. policy needs to change to help resolve it.”

Nearly half of the population of Yemen, about 14 million people, are on the brink of starvation, and 22 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance after five years of war between the Saudi-backed government and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Lawmakers and humanitarian groups have sharply criticized Saudi Arabia for carrying out a bombing campaign that indiscriminately killed civilians and at times imposed blockades on humanitarian aid to the country.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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