WASHINGTON — Senators who have grown increasingly uneasy with the U.S. response to Saudi Arabia after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi are set to grill top administration officials Wednesday at a closed-door briefing that could determine how far Congress goes in punishing the longtime Middle East ally.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says “some kind of response” is needed from the United States for the Saudis’ role in the gruesome death. While President Donald Trump has equivocated over who is to blame, the Senate is considering a vote as soon as this week to halt U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
“What obviously happened, as basically certified by the CIA, is completely abhorrent to everything the United States holds dear and stands for in the world,” McConnell said Tuesday. “We’re discussing what the appropriate response would be.”
Much will depend on what senators hear from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Administration officials were able to stall a Senate effort earlier this year against the Saudi-backed conflict in Yemen. But senators are outraged over the administration’s response to Khashoggi’s killing, and they’re particularly upset that no one from the intelligence community is attending Wednesday’s briefing.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of 10 Democrats who declined to join the earlier effort against the Saudis, said Tuesday he was reconsidering his position.
“Things changed,” Manchin said. “The whole thing with Khashoggi is very much concerning. It’s not who we are as a country. It’s not who we should have as allies and not condemn that.”
The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, will likely be in favor of the Yemen resolution, and another key member of the panel, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he was “inclined” to support it now if it came up for a vote.
Senators are getting hammered by outside groups running ads and lobbying them for action.
“What I would argue to the administration is that somehow or another there’s got to be a price to pay for what has happened,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the committee.
“My sense is, unless something happens — where they share what it is they’re going to do to deal with this injustice that has occurred — my sense is that people are going to vote to get on the bill.”
The resolution from Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, fell just six votes short of passage earlier this year. It drew a mix of Democrats and Republicans who have grown uneasy with U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis, the Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, in a war that human rights advocates say is indiscriminately bombing civilians and wreaking havoc on the country.
That was long before the Oct. 2 death of Khashoggi, the U.S.-educated journalist who was publicly critical of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Khashoggi was killed in what U.S. officials have described as an elaborate plot at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which he had visited for marriage paperwork. While U.S. intelligence officials have concluded the crown prince must have at least known of the plot, the CIA’s findings have not been made public.
Trump has said it may never be known who was responsible for the killing and in public comments — and a long and unusual statement last week — the president reinforced the United States’ long-standing alliance with the Saudis. Trump has praised a pending arms deal with the kingdom that he says will provide the U.S. with jobs and lucrative payments, though some outside assessments say the economic benefits are exaggerated.
Several GOP senators, including key allies Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky, have publicly questioned Trump’s handling of the situation. Paul is trying to block the arms sale.
“If you don’t draw the line here, where do you draw the line?” Graham asked reporters Tuesday. He, too, supports blocking the arms sale and said giving the crown prince “a pass on murdering a critic doesn’t make the world a safer place.”
The resolution needs just a simple majority to advance, but a vote is not certain this week. It could launch a process for amending the bill that could play out for days in the Senate.
Kate Kizer, policy director at the advocacy group Win Without War, said the pressure on the senators “is working.”
On a conference call with reporters, Sarah Margon, the Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said Khashoggi’s death “brought home the brutality” of the Saudi regime, and that’s putting pressure on Congress to act.