There’s no shortage of outrage over the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the U.S. Senate. But the same senators can’t agree how far to go in sanctioning the regime of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and time is running out.
The main driver behind the effort to punish the kingdom — Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee — leaves office in January, and senators are slated to be in town only two more weeks before the end of the 115th Congress. In that time, they have to muster enough votes in their chamber, convince the House to follow suit, and then get President Trump to sign any sanctions into law. It’s a tall order, especially for scolding a key U.S. ally that the president remains fully behind.
Khashoggi, a vocal critic of the Saudi leadership, was reportedly killed and dismembered by an assassination squad inside the Saudi embassy in Istanbul on Oct. 2., and the murder was allegedly directed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s brutal intervention in Yemen’s civil war continues to inflict death and famine on the Yemeni people.
“We have three different efforts underway, all of which have a lot of momentum,” Corker, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after hosting a bipartisan meeting on the best way to forge ahead with such a limited window of time to act.
Most U.S. senators would love to send the Saudi regime a sharp message before heading out of Washington for the holidays, but with each passing day, that looks less likely.
“I’m trying to make the point that the relationship is strategically important, and it’s strategically important that we separate ourselves from the conduct of the crown prince,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s sponsoring a bill to sanction top Saudi officials, told VICE News while walking under the Capitol.
Graham said his legislation isn’t aimed at regime change, although he’d like to see one.
“It’d be hard for me to have a normal relationship if he’s the leader of the country,” Graham continued. “My job is not to figure out who runs Saudi Arabia. My job is to take a stand for what makes the world a safer place and for our values. To me, it’s really dangerous for America to look away.”
Republican leaders, urged on by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, want to kill any proposal that would undercut the president, especially the current bill on the floor that would pull the U.S. out of Yemen altogether.
When 63 senators voted to cut off U.S. support for the conflict in Yemen, the move was cast as a stinging rebuke for the president. But that was only a resolution to begin debate: When the true debate starts, likely around the middle of next week, any senator can offer any amendment they want to the legislation. Supporters want to avoid that because any measure that gets added to the underlying legislation risks peeling off support from either the left or the right — a scenario that could derail the whole measure.
An amendment could also grind to a halt amid the rest of Congress’ to-do list, which includes an effort to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and the Farm Bill (which includes the nation’s food stamp program) and even to fund a full 25 percent of the federal government, among other measures.
“There's a lot of people who want to send that message [to Saudi Arabia] but also don't want to shut down the Senate at the time when we've got a lot of other important work to do,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy told reporters at the Capitol Thursday. “The body could decide that only germane amendments can be brought, which would limit the amount of debate.”
Some proponents of sanctions are calling to hold off on the vote until the new year when Democrats take the reigns of power in the House of Representatives. They know outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan is unlikely to end his tenure by bringing up a resolution that rebukes the administration.
“Whatever we do in the Senate is only half a loaf, so I just don't know that it makes a lot of sense to tie the Senate up in knots with a million amendments when the final product is not actually going to become law this this year,” Murphy said. “There's general agreement among the people who are working on this that it's not a great idea to have a wide open, wild, wild West debate in the Senate.”
Still, the many senators demanding the U.S. send a stern message to Saudi Arabia will be spending parts of their weekends on the phone with each other — or having their staffers do the calls for them — trying to forge a path forward that strikes a balance.
“I think there needs to be repercussions for what happened,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told VICE News at the Capitol this week. “The repercussions shouldn’t be imploding the Saudi alliance, but there certainly has to be limits to what behavior we’ll tolerate.”
That’s the fine line lawmakers of both parties are trying to walk: Keep the Saudis close, while also alerting them that America won’t sit idly by as they amass the blood of even more innocents under their fingernails.
Analysts across the ideological spectrum are pushing lawmakers to show the regime unified American strength, while also demanding compassion and reprieve for the civilians ensnared in the regional conflict that’s playing out on their soil.
To many, that’s as simple as merely condemning the Saudis for the killing of Khashoggi, which they say is long overdue. Others contend Trump’s own silence and foot-dragging on the issue has only emboldened senators to publicly break with him.
“I could have imagined a different administration using the bully pulpit and saying, ‘Enough is enough. This has to end,’” said Hady Amr, who worked in the Obama State Department. “I think public optics could have been very different even if there weren’t actions that were that different.”
Humans Rights Watch and other groups are calling for the United Nations to conduct an independent investigation into the killing of Khashoggi to build an international coalition, rather than yet another purely American-led Western response.
But there’s broad agreement on all sides of the ideological divide in Washington that America shouldn’t react too swiftly and rupture relations altogether.
“I don’t think that the approach to dealing with human rights abusers is to not deal with them entirely, so total disengagement is rarely effective,” Andrea Prasow, the deputy Washington Director at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. “I think it’s fine for the U.S. to have important, strategic interests in Saudi Arabia. That’s legitimate, but they can’t trump all other interests. And that’s what I think is happening right now.”
Cover image: Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., flanked by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, speaks to reporters. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)