Congressional Update – Week Ending March 23, 2018

Congressional Update – Week Ending March 23, 2018

Marcus Montgomery

I. Congress

Congress just barely passed a spending bill to keep the government open for the rest of the current fiscal year and President Donald Trump signed it. With the task accomplished, lawmakers head out of town for a two-week recess.

1) Legislation

Fiscal Year 2018 Spending Bill. Congress narrowly beat the deadline for another government shutdown by passing a $1.3 trillion appropriations bill early Friday morning. The 2,000-plus-page omnibus bill details the federal government’s budget until the end of this fiscal year, which expires September 30, 2018. The budget for Department of State and Foreign Operations totals $54 billion, roughly $3.4 billion less than fiscal year 2017. While the funds are marked for a wide range of priorities, there were some interesting provisions worth noting:

  • Israel: $3.1 billion in foreign military financing (FMF)
  • Egypt: $1.3 billion in FMF and $112.5 million set aside for its Economic Support Fund (ESF)
  • Jordan: $425 million in FMF and $1.082 billion toward its ESF
  • Tunisia: $165.4 million in aid, including for its ESF
  • Taylor Force Act: Lawmakers included the language of the previously introduced Taylor Force Act, which serves to condition financial support to the governing Palestinian Authority on ending its social safety net program (critics decry it as rewarding acts of terrorism)
  • Broadcasting Board of Governors: Congress authorized nearly $798 million for the Broadcasting Board of Governors to continue its Arabic-language broadcasting in the Middle East

J. Res. 54. On March 20, the full Senate voted to table a resolution aimed at forcing President Trump to withdraw any US troops from the conflict in Yemen. Though the resolution’s sponsors were hoping to force such a vote, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), motioned to table the resolution, meaning the bill would stay in committee to be considered. Corker argued that skipping over the committee broke with the normal legislative process; he urged his colleagues to be patient and let the SFRC do its due diligence. Ultimately, Corker’s argument prevailed and the senators voted (55-44) to table the motion, ultimately killing it without holding the vote that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and his cosponsors were seeking. Before and during the debate, senators took different sides on the issue. Some echoed Saudi talking points about why the fight in Yemen is necessary, while others rushed to seek answers from the Trump Administration about why they were not notified about agreements regarding military support for the Saudi and Emirati bombardment of Yemen. Though the motion was ultimately tabled, congressional support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen is noticeably thin and pressure is likely to keep building on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to find a solution to end the conflict.

2) Hearings

FY 2019 Foreign Assistance Budget. Even before the fiscal year 2018 budget was formalized, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) was already assessing the White House’s proposed budget for the following fiscal year. More specifically, Chairman Ed Royce (R-California) called the hearing to explore President Trump’s reluctant funding request for the foreign assistance budget. Chairman Royce decried the White House’s budget proposal that steeply cuts the budget for foreign assistance, but he conceded that reforming the budget is an acceptable goal. In that regard, the administrator for the US Agency for International Development, Mark Green, testified that the budget request was actually an increase from last year, but that it still represented the “fiscally responsible” budget the administration is seeking. Ultimately, Mr. Green is seeking to better optimize fewer resources while maintaining the United States’ role in providing necessary assistance. This could result in foreign assistance cuts to the Middle East, especially at a time when the Trump Administration is prioritizing defense and counterterrorism expenditures over development and foreign assistance. However, many in Congress have reached a rare bipartisan agreement that the proposed cuts are unacceptable and that they could fund the agency at higher levels than Trump requested.

Implications of a US-Saudi Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. On March 21, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing to understand the possible implications of a US-Saudi nuclear cooperation agreement on the region. Generally, lawmakers are skeptical about allowing the Saudis to develop a domestic nuclear energy program, even for civilian purposes, without strict checks on enrichment and reprocessing. The subcommittee’s chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida)—a fierce Iran hawk and reliable Israel ally—raised concerns about proliferation and other possible ramifications. Congress’s concern with the issue was also illustrated by a bill and a resolution introduced this week. H.R. 5357 and H. Res. 795 both seek to raise the point that lawmakers should play a strong role in crafting any cooperation agreements between the United States and others.

In short, the views of the three witnesses at the hearing—William Tobey, Sharon Squassoni, and Henry Sokolski—ranged from advocating for the United States to tread cautiously but consider signing an agreement with the Saudis, to arguing against the move entirely. Agreeing to assist the Saudis in establishing a nuclear program carries significant proliferation risks due to the rivalry between the kingdom and Iran, and every witness urged Congress to administer strong oversight of any potential agreement.

What’s Next for Lebanon? Stability and Security Challenges. On the same day, the Senate Foreign Relations Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism subcommittee held a hearing to assess the challenges facing Lebanon in the near future. This hearing is the first in months that the subcommittee chair, Senator James Risch (R-Idaho), has held, and it comes at a time when he is anticipated to take up the full committee chairmanship after the current chair, Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), retires in 2018—assuming the GOP maintains its majority after the midterm elections. Elliott Abrams of the Council of Foreign Relations and Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group testified before the subcommittee.

At the outset, Abrams tried to refute the idea that Lebanon is a friendly country that operates independently of foreign powers and nefarious organizations. Highlighting both broader Lebanese politics, and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as an institution, Abrams raised the points that no important decisions are made in the country without Hezbollah’s agreement and that Hezbollah serves as the de facto governing body of the state. As for the LAF, Abrams was particularly concerned that Lebanon receives the fifth largest amount of US foreign military financing, yet the LAF does little to intercept Hezbollah weapons, secure the borders, or prevent the party from maintaining military bases. Abrams suggested the United States reconsider entirely its military assistance to, and foreign policy toward, Lebanon and more closely align policies with those of US allies.

Malley took an opposite view, arguing that the presence of Hezbollah allows for a kind of stability in Lebanon; the balance between it and the government allows the state to maintain relations with all the major players, like the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. To destabilize the precarious political situation currently at play would be extremely risky, he said. Malley outlined three factors that could potentially threaten the delicate balance that Lebanon has cultivated: a disruption of domestic power (i.e., that of Hezbollah); an outbreak of war between Hezbollah and Israel; and further tension in the region with diminished capabilities of reaching diplomatic solutions. Malley summed up his testimony by saying that the United States must tread lightly in addressing its concerns in Lebanon because to destabilize the state could result in even greater instability in the region.

HFAC Hosts UN Human Rights Chief; Royce Holds Bilateral Meetings. Chairman Royce and the rest of the HFAC gathered for a small briefing with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. The commissioner briefed lawmakers on his agency’s efforts to assist the millions of refugees across the globe and asked for their continued support. Royce also met with ambassadors to the United States from Tunisia and Yemen to discuss bilateral relations and challenges facing the respective countries.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Formally Nominates Pompeo as Chief Diplomat, Taps New NSA. This week, President Trump formally submitted Mike Pompeo’s name to the Senate for confirmation as the new secretary of state. Pompeo met with SFRC Chairman Corker, who left the meeting saying he was very impressed and hoped to consider Pompeo’s nomination expeditiously. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) echoed that sentiment and the two said a confirmation hearing will take place in April.

President Trump also announced that his current national security advisor (NSA), General H.R. McMaster, would be leaving the White House and that neoconservative political commentator and former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, would succeed the general in April. Bolton is drawing fierce condemnations from Democrats and Republicans alike for his full-throated support for waging war on North Korea and Iran as well as his role in building the “evidence” used to justify invading Iraq in the first Bush Administration. However controversial the move, the role of the NSA does not require Senate confirmation, so barring a change of mind, Bolton will be at the White House shortly as the chief advisor on US national security issues.

2) State Department

Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan Addresses Humanitarian Assistance. On March 22, US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan gave a keynote address at the United States Institute of Peace on the humanitarian challenges the State Department confronts today. He focused on several regions, but most relevant in terms of the Middle East were his remarks on Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Sullivan spoke broadly about the aid that has been given to these key conflict zones.

Sullivan stressed two major needs in Iraq: effective reconstruction efforts for the internally displaced populations, which can quell future radicalization, and the establishment of successful democratic institutions. Helping Iraq satisfy these needs would strengthen the partnership between the United States and Iraq, Sullivan argued. As for Syria and Yemen, he noted that the United States has provided $7.7 billion and $768 million in aid to the two countries, respectively. In addition, Sullivan highlighted the crucial support that the United States has provided to the neighboring countries that play host to large refugee populations, with a view to counter efforts that radicalize the displaced and to allow unrestricted humanitarian resources to flow to those countries.

State Department OK’s Over $1 Billion in Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia. On March 22, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced it had approved a trio of offers, totaling over $1 billion, for arms and munitions sales as well as servicing agreements for military vehicles for the Saudi government. The announcements come at a time when Congress is still grappling with the United States’ role in the deteriorating crisis in Yemen.

III. Government

Officials in both the legislative and executive branches of the US government offered an effusive welcome to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to Washington this week. Bin Salman secured an Oval Office meeting with President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and meetings with other White House staff, including then National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.

In addition, MBS met with a host of congressional members including Senate leaders Mitch McConnell, Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), SFRC Chairman Bob Corker, SFRC Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), and the House majority/minority leadership, including Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). On Thursday, MBS met with Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who reaffirmed US support for the kingdom but urged the prince to end the war in Yemen.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here