By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Jim Risch, introduced legislation on Wednesday punishing Saudi Arabia over human rights and criticizing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but not by stopping 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.
“It is the sense of Congress that, since the promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to the position of Crown Prince with significant authorities over foreign and domestic affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the government of Saudi Arabia has demonstrated increasingly erratic and disturbing conduct,” the bill says.
However, the Saudi Arabia Diplomatic Review Act would not block weapons sales to Riyadh, focusing instead on barring travel by members of the Saudi royal family who work in its government. Risch had said he wanted to introduce legislation that would punish Saudi Arabia for rights abuses, but which President Donald Trump would sign.
It was not clear whether Risch’s bill would be considered strong enough to win Senate approval.
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 Congress’ review of such deals by declaring an emergency over threats from Iran.
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.
Assistant Secretary of State Clarke Cooper told a Foreign Relations hearing on the weapons sales on Wednesday that the military equipment has not been delivered, even though it has been seven weeks since the emergency declaration in May.
“Delivery is pending,” he said, a comment that caused both Republican and Democratic committee members to question the administration’s decision to declare an emergency.
Trump views weapons sales as an important generator of American jobs and Saudi Arabia as an important 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. 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 if he deems them in the U.S. national interest.
Risch, who voted against the resolutions of disapproval, said it was important to respond to “clear” threats to the United States and its allies from Iran.
“Emergency declarations are useful not just for the tangible military capabilities they transfer to allies and partners, but are equally important for the messages they convey,” he said.
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.
A Risch aide said the senator is “cautiously optimistic” about getting Trump’s support for his bill, and that the White House had weighed in on its text.
The House of Representatives is due to vote on some of the resolutions of disapproval next week. They are expected to pass the Democratic-controlled chamber, but are unlikely to garner the two-thirds majorities there and in the Senate to overcome Trump vetoes.
The Senate and House both passed legislation earlier this year that would have barred U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. But there were too few votes to overcome Trump’s veto.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz joined Democrats in criticizing the State Department’s allowing 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.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)