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Risch drops Saudi measure; panel backs Menendez sanctions bill

Sends strong message of displeasure with the Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, left, withdrew his own Saudi legislation after the committee voted to amend it by adding a sanctions bill from ranking member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., right. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, left, withdrew his own Saudi legislation after the committee voted to amend it by adding a sanctions bill from ranking member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., right. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday advanced to the floor bipartisan legislation that would impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses, though the panel’s chairman said he would “absolutely not” recommend it be brought up for a vote.

Chairman Jim Risch withdrew his own Saudi legislation after the committee voted to amend it by adding ranking member Robert Menendez’s sanctions bill to it. In the end, only the Menendez bill was reported to the floor.

Taken together, the actions showed a majority decided it was better to have the committee send a strong message of displeasure with the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, than have the Senate vote on legislation that did little to punish him or constrain the Trump administration’s relations with the kingdom.

“It’s going to get vetoed. I’m not about to pursue something that’s not going to become law,” Risch, R-Idaho, said of the sanctions bill from Menendez, D-New Jersey, and Republican Sens. Todd Young of Indiana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

After the markup, Risch told reporters the committee was done focusing on Saudi Arabia for the time being.

“This is over. We’ve worked at it for a long time, we had a fair vote on it and it is what it is,” Risch said.

But by reversing course from last week and agreeing to negotiate the meeting’s agenda with Menendez, Risch was able to save the committee’s longstanding bipartisan tradition of comity.

“For many decades, this committee has stood alone in the Senate, a bipartisan haven in the midst of a tidal wave of partisanship,” Menendez said at the start of the markup. “It is in this committee that senators from both parties have come together to craft critical pieces of legislation at times of great crisis in our country.”

Menendez said he appreciated the senators, on both sides of the aisle, who spoke in favor of maintaining comity, whereby the chairman and ranking member jointly agree on the agenda of a business meeting.

After Risch scheduled the markup without getting the consent of Menendez, Democrats feared he planned to break with the comity. They responded by filing hundreds of amendments that could have drawn out the markup for hours. According to a Democratic staffer, who was not authorized to be named, Risch relented and the meeting’s agenda was negotiated with Menendez.

“Comity is a deliberative, consultative, negotiated process where the majority and minority come together to form a pathway over to consensus,” Menendez said. “That pathway forward also has to observe the rights of the minority, the rights that I observed when I was chairman of this committee.”

Divided over Saudi Arabia

Senators agreed, 13-9, to send the bill from Menendez to the floor with all Democrats, Graham, Young and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, voting in favor.

The legislation would impose mandatory sanctions on individuals complicit in the assassination of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi or those blocking delivery of humanitarian aid in Yemen. The bill would also block weapons sales through fiscal 2020 to Saudi Arabia and prohibit any resumption by the Pentagon of aerial refueling of Saudi jets fighting in the Yemen civil war.

“We have watched the Saudi-led coalition lead a disastrous campaign in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions, left millions more on the brink of starvation,” Menendez said in a statement after the markup. “This bill does not seek to throw out the U.S.-Saudi partnership, but sends a strong signal that our partners cannot act with impunity and that we must take actions to promote our interests and our values.”

Unlike the Menendez bill, the Risch measure would not impose sanctions or cut off military assistance to Saudi Arabia. However, the legislation would order a range of reports and comprehensive assessments about U.S-Saudi relations, which Risch argued would enable Congress to play a role in formulating policy toward the Gulf monarchy.

The committee voted, 12-10, to adopt an amendment from Menendez that would add his Saudi sanctions bill to the underlying legislation from Risch. All Democrats and Graham and Paul voted in favor.

Risch then withdrew his bill, saying he saw no point moving forward with it if it would ultimately be vetoed by President Donald Trump.

“The objective was to give the committee the alternatives of either doing something where they could participate in the formulation of foreign policy or set that aside and just do messaging and they chose to do the messaging, which the committee absolutely can do,” Risch said. “But that cedes the formulation of policy totally to the [executive] branch.”

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