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On Chaotic Wednesday, Senators Hunt for an Endgame

Yemen resolution, contentious nominees complicate escape plans

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., arrives Wednesday for a briefing for all senators with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., arrives Wednesday for a briefing for all senators with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Wednesday was not a typical day in the Senate.

On an average Senate day, the visceral, negative response from senators to a closed briefing on U.S. policy on Saudi Arabia might have dominated headlines.

But just before lunch Wednesday, senators emerged from a secure room deep within the Capitol Visitor Center, navigated a large gaggle of the press and shifted gears from discussing U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia to one of the most contested judicial nominations of the year.

It took an appearance by Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 deadlock on the nomination of Thomas Farr to be a federal judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina. That came after a lengthy wait for Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina to cast his vote to limit debate on the nomination.

That sets up a Thursday vote on the confirmation of Farr, President Donald Trump’s nominee for a long-vacant federal judgeship. Opponents say Farr has a track record of working to limit voting rights.

Scott has remained noncommittal on final confirmation, and Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake is holding firm to his commitment to oppose judicial nominations until he gets a Senate vote on a bill designed to shield special counsel Robert S. Mueller III from being dismissed improperly. Flake was the only GOP vote to oppose cutting off debate on Farr’s nomination, which prompted Pence to break the tie. 

Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa announced late Wednesday that he would be postponing the committee’s regularly scheduled Thursday markup, a sign that Flake does not intend to change course.

About that Mueller shield bill: As the closed briefing on the war in Yemen and other issues related to Saudi Arabia was drawing to a close, Flake was busy on the Senate floor with Democratic Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey pushing for unanimous consent on the Mueller measure.

Utah Republican Mike Lee objected to the latest request, citing constitutional concerns related to the separation of powers.

Breaking point

With the clock running on the Farr nomination, senators voted later in the afternoon, 63-37, to discharge the Foreign Relations Committee of a bipartisan joint resolution to stop U.S. military involvement in the war in Yemen.

Supporters and detractors alike of the legislative effort led by Vermont independent Bernie Sanders and others made it sound like Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo actually lost votes at the morning’s closed meeting.

“They just had no good answers for why Gina Haspel wasn’t there,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a supporter of the joint resolution, said of the CIA director, whom members have been asking to meet with to no avail. “They had no strategic sense of where the relationship with Saudi Arabia is going.”

Murphy told reporters that he thought the administration’s handling of the response to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was poor enough that a briefing from Haspel would not be enough to stop the Senate from proceeding to the joint resolution for a floor debate.

“It’d be nice for her to answer questions about it, but I don’t think a simple appearance by the CIA director is going to flip 14 votes in the Senate. I think you’ve either got to have new sanctions, a cease-fire, I mean something big has to happen,” Murphy said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham threatened to vote against key legislation and nominations that need to pass before lawmakers can go home for the year, until they hear from Haspel to get her assessment of the culpability of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in Khashoggi’s murder.

“I wanted to see what would happen today. I wanted to see why we weren’t being briefed. Nobody gave me a good answer,” Graham said. “From the body’s point of view, this is not an acceptable outcome.”

Lame-duck laboring

Elsewhere, there were signs of the end-of-the-year legislation coming together.

For instance, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas said leaders in both chambers have resolved House farm bill forestry provisions that had threatened to derail efforts to produce a farm bill conference report.

Roberts and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said they won’t release details on the forestry decision until there is consensus on an overall farm bill.

And Grassley sounded optimistic about getting a deal for floor time for a bipartisan criminal justice package, saying he spoke Wednesday with two more senators who would be supporting the bill if it gets to the floor.

“Every hour our chances are improving,” the Iowa Republican said. “There’s nothing negative. It’s all very positive.”

As for the bundle of the remaining seven spending bills, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said that next Wednesday will likely be the last day for lawmakers and the White House to reach agreement on the package, including border wall funding. If not, they’ll have to lean on a stopgap spending bill or face a partial government shutdown.

Later, the Alabama Republican told reporters that the current proposal to provide $5 billion in border wall funding in the Homeland Security spending bill includes some rescissions from fiscal 2018 for money not yet spent, new funding in fiscal 2019 and additional funding in fiscal year 2020.

“We’re trying to reach a $5 billion number with some old money, some immediate money and some future money,” he said.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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