The Senate is barreling toward a floor brawl over how to respond to Saudi Arabia’s role in the slaying of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Senators took a significant step this week advancing a bipartisan resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, marking a sharp break from President Trump, who has stood by Riyadh and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, even in the face of reports that the prince personally ordered Khahoggi’s death.
But now, lawmakers need to figure out what a final bill will look like as they prepare to take a next step of bringing the resolution up for debate — and a potentially raucous floor drama. The war powers fight is uncharted waters for a Senate that has repeatedly rejected attempts to challenge the White House’s combat authority.
“This is new territory, I mean this hasn’t been done in the past, and I want to do everything I can to ensure that this is handled in a dignified manner,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
First, senators will need to agree to proceed to the resolution — sponsored by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) — that requires Trump to remove any troops in or “affecting” Yemen within 30 days.
But supporters are confident that they’ll easily overcome that procedural hurdle, which requires only a simple majority, after already securing 63 votes to advance it.
It’s what comes after that is causing heartburn for advocates of the resolution and leadership alike, who are hoping to get an agreement that would prevent an unwieldy debate that could otherwise derail the bill.
“I think this blows up the minute you get too far afield,” Murphy said, characterizing himself as open to “limited” and on-topic amendments.
Without a deal on how to move forward, senators are predicting a marathon floor session akin to the infamous “vote-a-ramas” that accompany budget resolutions, where any senator can force a vote on any amendment on any issue. That would allow any senator to bring up political lightning rods and force tough votes that would otherwise be prevented from coming to the floor.
“Absent a consent agreement, there is a potential for unlimited vote-a-rama where we could be voting on anything from immigration reform to criminal justice reform,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, adding the free-wheeling votes could be “rather confusing.”
Senators are jockeying to pitch their own proposals with no clear indication of which, if any, plans could wrangle together the votes needed to pass. Thirty-seven Republicans voted against the underlying resolution, though some might support competing proposals that would effectively replace the current bill.
Corker, who is retiring after this Congress, is working to draft a closely held amendment that, he says, would have “teeth” but let Congress “more fully express” itself.
“We’re … crafting what we believe would be a better approach to deal with the Saudi Arabia,” he said, but largely declined to comment further about what will be in his proposal.
Several Republican senators voted to advance the resolution last week because of the message it sent to the administration, instead of its actual substance. Instead, they are expected to try to substitute in their own bills.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) voted to discharge the resolution out of the Foreign Relations Committee because he is “pissed” about how the administration has handled Khashoggi’s killing at a Saudi consulate in Turkey and the absence of CIA Director Gina Haspel at last week’s briefing, a decision several senators described as a misstep by the White House.
“I’ve got a substitute that I think is better way of doing it. I’m talking to my colleagues about how we can better send a message,” Graham said.
The alternative option from Graham, which he introduced as a stand-alone bill with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), would require sanctions within 30 days on anyone involved in Khashoggi’s death, including “any official of the government of Saudi Arabia or member of the royal family” determined to be involved.
It would also require a report within 30 days on the kingdom’s human rights record. And to help address the Yemen crisis, the bill would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and prohibit the U.S. military from refueling Saudi coalition aircraft.
Graham, reacting to a photo of the Saudi crown prince and Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly greeting each other at Friday’s Group of 20 summit, predicted in a tweet Friday that “the vote total is going up in the Senate to pass MBS sanctions legislation.”
Democrats’ opening salvo is to stick by the resolution as currently written. Murphy said it was “much more likely” that Democrats will try to get consent to have one vote on the resolution, and warned against watering down the resolution until it’s little more than a symbolic shot at the Saudi crown prince.
“There are strike-all amendments that would be too weak for me to support and I imagine the other cosponsors to support, but, listen, I get it, we’re super out of practice in legislating, so all of this sounds absolutely fantastical that we might have to make tough decisions about what amendments to support without compromising the underlying bill,” he added.
Key members and leadership are scrambling to cut a deal that would limit the floor drama, or, at the very least, require amendments be related to Saudi Arabia as they try to avoid a partisan trainwreck. Two Senate aides said Friday they had not yet reached a deal, with one predicting an agreement could happen on Monday.
Cornyn said he hoped once members realized what a open-amendment process would entail he hoped they would agree to a package of votes and avoid the free-for-all.
Corker warned that without a deal on limiting the Senate debate “all kinds of amendments” could be offered for a vote.
“The question is can we just limit [it] to things that are relative to Saudi Arabia and foreign policy,” he said.
And there’s still time, senators argue, for the administration to head off support for Senate action by forcing Saudi Arabia to the table on other issues, such as a ceasefire in Yemen, before the Senate takes the next vote on its legislation.
Though frustration with Saudi Arabia — both for Khashoggi’s death and the years-long war in Yemen — has reached a fever pitch on Capitol Hill, the administration and Trump have so far signaled they are standing by the ally.
“If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake,” Trump told reporters this month, adding that “we may never know” who was ultimately responsible for the killing of Khashoggi.
The White House is threatening to veto the Senate resolution and dispatched Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to brief senators in an unsuccessful bid to squash it.
Murphy said that the looming Senate vote could be a “leverage moment” for the administration with Saudi Arabia and let them avoid a “messy” floor fight in Congress.
“I think there’s some Republicans that think the administration’s going to pull a rabbit out of the hat before a motion to proceed,” Murphy said. “So let’s see if the administration has anything to announce. If they don’t then the motion to proceed succeeds and we have to come up with some consent.”