Sanctions, Arms Sales and Yemen

How the U.S. Congress Can Punish Saudi Arabia - Even Without Trump

Here are some ways U.S. lawmakers could respond after they return to Washington in the middle of next month following the Nov. 6 midterm elections

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends during the 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia April 15, 2018.
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump has said he plans to work with Congress to craft a U.S. response to the killing of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

"In terms of what we ultimately do, I'm going to leave it very much - in conjunction with me - up to Congress. And that means Congress, both Republicans and Democrats," Trump said, adding that he would like a bipartisan recommendation.

Here are some ways U.S. lawmakers could respond after they return to Washington in the middle of next month following the Nov. 6 midterm elections that will determine whether Trump's fellow Republicans maintain control of the House of Representatives and Senate.

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ARMS SALES RESOLUTION

Four U.S. arms agreements with Saudi Arabia already have been placed on "hold" by members of Congress under an informal process in which the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee can delay a deal, according to congressional aides.

If any of those "holds" get lifted, the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 would give Congress the right to vote on whether to stop a sale. In the Senate, a chamber in which any senator can force such a vote, Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Chris Murphy both have promised to introduce what is called a Resolution of Disapproval that would kill any deal with Saudi Arabia.

Prospects for such action in the House are less clear. Under House rules, the chamber's Republican leaders, closely aligned with Trump, can prevent a vote on a resolution. Democrats, who may control the House in January depending on the election results, are expected to be more amenable to such a vote.

ARMS SALE AMENDMENT TO SPENDING BILL

Congress must pass spending legislation to keep the federal government open after Dec. 7, the date when appropriations bills covering about 25 percent of the government expire.

Some congressional aides have indicated that, if lawmakers are angry enough at the Saudi government, they could amend a spending bill to stop arms sales to Riyadh. Such an amendment could make the expenditure of U.S. taxpayer funds on any sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia contingent upon the kingdom punishing those responsible for Khashoggi's death or meeting certain human rights requirements.

Trump would risk a U.S. government shutdown if he decided to veto such a bill in order to allow arms Saudi sales to go ahead.

STANDALONE SANCTIONS BILL

Congress could pass a standalone sanctions bill targeting Saudi Arabia, though aides do not expect this considering the packed legislative agenda facing lawmakers in the last few weeks of 2018. But lawmakers have done this before, most recently in 2017, when they passed the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act imposing sanctions on Russia, North Korea and Iran. Trump reluctantly signed it into law after the Senate and House passed it by veto-proof margins.

YEMEN RESOLUTION

Lawmakers could pursue a resolution to stop U.S. support for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, similar to one that failed in the Senate by a 55-44 vote in March. They would need the support of the Republican leaders of Congress for a vote. Even lawmakers most concerned about the Yemen humanitarian crisis do not expect action on such a resolution.

SENATE POWERS

Republican senators could try to influence the White House to crack down on Saudi Arabia, such as by withholding votes on Trump's judicial nominees, a top legislative priority for the president and Senate Republican leaders.

But the Republicans, who control the Senate by a 51-49 margin, have very rarely voted against any of the party's initiatives and there is little expectation they would do so over Khashoggi's death.