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Senators’ Yemen Vote Is Precursor to Debate on Saudi Relations

Corker eyes nonbinding resolution to condemn kingdom over Khashoggi murder

With the Senate expected to vote Wednesday on a resolution aimed at the Yemen war, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker wants to ensure any amendments offered are germane. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
With the Senate expected to vote Wednesday on a resolution aimed at the Yemen war, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker wants to ensure any amendments offered are germane. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate is expected Wednesday to debate and vote on a resolution that would order an end to military involvement in the war in Yemen, one of several measures that lawmakers are considering to punish Saudi Arabia.

But Wednesday’s discussion may be shortened due to scant floor time and several competing high-priority legislative items that, unlike the Yemen resolution, could still become law before the year is over.

After the Senate holds a vote on proceeding to the resolution from Sens. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, and Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, which is expected to easily pass, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker has promised to make an unspecified “parliamentary move” to ensure any amendments to the resolution are germane.

“I think that will overwhelmingly pass,” the Tennessee Republican told reporters of his plan to restrict floor debate. “I think that all the people who support the resolution will vote for that and then there will be a whole lot of good-government Republicans that don’t want to see the Senate turned into … a silly vote-a-thon.”

The Sanders-Lee resolution, which is privileged under the War Powers Act, only needs a simple majority to pass. The Senate in late November voted 63-37 to have a debate on the resolution, with all Democrats voting in favor. This time around the measure is assumed to have enough support to pass the chamber but with fewer Republican votes compared to the first procedural vote.

Corker is among the Republicans who voted to have a floor debate on the Yemen war out of frustration with the Trump administration’s refusal to rethink its close relationship with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But the retiring senator has said he will oppose the Sanders-Lee measure.

Instead, Corker is passing around a separate nonbinding resolution, yet to be introduced, that would condemn several of the policies of the Saudi crown prince and accuse him of complicity in the October assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“I don’t want anyone to think we’re trying to interfere with the Lee-Sanders thing because they are two different issues,” Corker said of his resolution on the Khashoggi murder.

Corker is hopeful his resolution, which he said has the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, could get its own floor vote this year. He sees it as being able to attract more Republican support than a related bipartisan proposal offered by South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham.

And Graham said he’s OK with that, adding that the two anti-Mohammed bin Salman legislative actions are “very similar.”

“I’m trying to grow the vote so having his [Corker’s] resolution would be fine with me,” Graham said. “The key is to send a strong signal.”

Though his resolution is nonbinding, Corker said he is hopeful its passage, in combination with two previous actions by himself and Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez, could convince the Trump administration to publicly name the Saudi crown prince as complicit in the journalist’s assassination. Corker and Menendez triggered a U.S. investigation into the Khashoggi murder under the Global Magnitsky human rights law.

And yet, neither the Yemen resolution nor the measures criticizing the Saudi crown prince represents a surefire way of changing U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The best chance of doing that, according to Corker, is a bipartisan measure from Menendez and Indiana Republican Todd Young. That bill would block for nearly two years the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia; prohibit the Pentagon from resuming midair refueling of Saudi coalition jets flying in Yemen; and require the sanctioning under the Global Magnitsky law of any individuals complicit in the death of Khashoggi.

But Corker and Menendez remain divided on whether to keep the measure’s mandatory sanctions language. That disagreement is preventing them from scheduling a committee markup.

Both senators said there was still a chance of reaching agreement in time to hold a markup this week, but Menendez said he remained unwilling to relax the sanctions requirement to one that is discretionary.

“I’m not going to diminish the essence of the legislation,” the New Jersey Democrat said.

Corker said he was sympathetic to wanting to punish Mohammed bin Salman but that he was afraid the legislation would discourage the Trump administration from publicly acknowledging the Saudi crown prince’s role in Khashoggi’s murder because to do so would trigger automatic sanctions, which include a travel ban and asset freeze.

“We’ve not yet sanctioned heads of states of real countries,” Corker said. “We’ve sanctioned the countries, and so it’s an issue that we just need to think through.”

ICYMI: GOP Senators Remain Convinced of Saudi Prince’s Involvement in Khashoggi Murder

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