The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Jim Risch, introduced legislation on Wednesday punishing Saudi Arabia over human rights abuses and criticizing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but not halting weapons sales.
The bill is the latest effort in Congress to hold the kingdom accountable for rights abuses, including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
“The Crown Prince has frequently behaved in a reckless manner, including arresting those opposed to his rule,” the bill says, adding that bin Salman’s actions could “significantly harm” U.S.-Saudi relations.
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However, the Saudi Arabia Diplomatic Review Act would not block weapons sales to Riyadh, focusing instead on barring travel by many members of the Saudi royal family who work in its government, although not the king or crown prince.
Risch said his goal was legislation that addresses rights abuses, but that President Donald Trump would sign. “This is an honest effort to get a bill that can pass and become law,” he told reporters.
It was not clear whether Risch’s bill would be considered strong enough to win Senate approval.
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Although Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a Senate majority, the chamber last month defied him by voting to block $8 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries.
A handful of Republicans joined Democrats to pass resolutions opposing the sales, rejecting Trump’s decision to sidestep Congressional review of such deals by declaring an emergency over threats from Iran, although with too few votes to override a presidential veto.
The Republican-majority Foreign Relations Committee also approved separate legislation, sponsored by ranking Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, that would make it more difficult for Trump to avoid congressional review of arms sales.
And it is due to consider as soon as next week another measure imposing harsher sanctions on Saudi Arabia that also has bipartisan support.
Assistant Secretary of State Clarke Cooper told a Foreign Relations hearing on the weapons sales on Wednesday that the equipment has not been delivered, even though it has been seven weeks since the emergency declaration in May.
“Delivery is pending,” he said, prompting Republicans and Democrats to question the administration’s decision.
‘Follow the damn law’
Trump views weapons sales as an important generator of jobs and Saudi Arabia as a necessary counterweight to Iran’s influence in the Middle East. He has promised to veto all 22 resolutions of disapproval.
Risch’s bill calls for a “comprehensive review” of Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and a peaceful resolution of the war in Yemen. It also calls on Trump to deny or revoke visas of members of the Saudi royal family until the country improves its rights record, although it allows waivers for security reasons.
Risch, who led Senate opposition to resolutions against the weapons sales, said it was important to respond to “clear” Iranian threats to the United States and its allies.
Discussing the bill with reporters, Risch said stopping weapons sales could push Saudi Arabia toward China or Russia. “They can go to the bazaar and buy arms from anyone they want to,” he said.
At the hearing, Menendez scoffed at the contention that the Saudi and UAE arms deals were urgent enough to sidestep weapons export law. “How would sales that will not be delivered for many, many months immediately respond to an emergency?” he asked.
Risch said he had consulted with Democrats, the State Department and the White House, but would not say whether Trump would sign the bill if it passed the Senate and House of Representatives. An aide said the senator is “cautiously optimistic” about getting Trump’s support.
The House is due to start voting on resolutions of disapproval next week. They are expected to pass the Democratic-controlled chamber, but unlikely to garner the two-thirds majorities there and in the Senate to overcome Trump vetoes.
Underscoring bipartisan concern, Republican Senator Ted Cruz joined Democrats in criticizing the weapons sales without congressional review. Cruz had voted against the resolutions of disapproval because of the threat from Iran.
“Don’t make the mistake that it is only Democrats that are concerned about this,” Cruz said. “Follow the damn law and respect it.”
Risch’s bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Chris Coons, and Republican Senator Marco Rubio.