Congressional Update – Week Ending October 20, 2017

I. Congress

1) Legislation. This week, with the House of Representatives on recess and the Senate preoccupied with passing its version of a budget resolution, there were few developments in new proposed legislation, particularly regarding Middle East policy.

Congressional Budget for Fiscal Year 2018. Members of the Senate spent the majority of their time this week deliberating H. Con. Res. 71, which is a resolution intended to establish the federal government’s budget for the fiscal year. The resolution passed narrowly (51-49), along party lines, but the amended language has enough support from the House to avoid a conference. The vote came after a spectacle known as “vote-a-rama,” in which members vote on a countless number of amendments, some of which are often politically sensitive. Once the House adopts this version of the resolution, the GOP will be one step closer to reaching its goal of tax reform and cuts.

Blocking the Implementation of the President’s Travel Ban. Although the Senate was mostly focused on the budget resolution, 30 Democrats—led by Senator Chris Murphy (Connecticut)—and one independent teamed up to propose a bill intended to prevent federal agencies from implementing President Donald Trump’s latest attempt at barring certain foreign nationals from entering the United States. S. 1979 cannot mandate that the executive order be terminated or withdrawn, but Congress does have the ability to prevent agencies from using federal funds to implement the order. With a GOP majority in both chambers and no Republicans cosponsoring the legislation, it is unlikely that the bill will have any chance of passing. It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

2) Members Speak Out

Senators Oppose Hamas-Fatah Reconciliation. Over the past few weeks, Palestinian political factions Hamas and Fatah have taken steps toward reconciling their differences in pursuit of establishing a unity government. While the Palestinian leaders themselves spoke positively of the developments, some in Washington were not so enthused. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Chris Coons (D-Delaware), and James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) all spoke out against Fatah’s efforts to integrate Hamas into a unified government, citing Hamas’s designation as a terrorist organization. Lack of congressional support for a unity government could be a death blow to the reconciliation process, should the two sides get closer to an agreement. As it stands in US law, federal funding cannot be used to support any Palestinian government that includes Hamas because it is a designated terrorist group. In order to establish a unity government but not lose out on millions of dollars of US aid, the Palestinians would have to persuade members of Congress to rollback or amend current law, a daunting task given the bipartisan cynicism towards the idea.

Lone Senator Could Hold Up Nomination over Saudi Arabia. During a nomination hearing on October 18, Senator Todd Young (R-Indiana) threatened to stall the confirmation of the State Department’s top legal advisor due to his frustration with a lack of information on Saudi Arabia’s role in the current Yemen war and ongoing humanitarian crisis. On multiple occasions, Young has asked the State Department to determine if Saudi Arabia is violating Sec. 620I of the Foreign Assistance Act with its actions in Yemen—particularly by blockading ports and preventing the delivery of aid. Per that provision, the United States is prohibited from providing arms or other assistance to countries that the president knows are hindering US aid relief, though the president can waive this requirement on the grounds of national security. Young and other critics of the Saudis’ role in the war argue that the United States is responsible for the crisis in Yemen through its implicit and explicit support for the Saudi campaign. Though Young has yet to formally initiate the process, he can exploit an informal Senate rule that allows individual senators to place holds on presidential nominees if the senator has specific concerns. The nominee, Jennifer Newstead, will very likely be confirmed in the future, but Young could drag the issue out, drawing more attention to the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen and US support for those efforts.

3) Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

Human Rights in Qatar. Although the House was not in session, the cochairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) called a briefing to assess the human rights situation in Qatar, particularly since the onset of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rift that resulted in a blockade of Qatar. This committee does not enjoy the same prominence as standing committees, but holding this briefing could have policy implications nonetheless, particularly if it draws attention to the human rights issues in the Gulf and prompts lawmakers to consider the issue further.

During the panel discussion, Todd Ruffner of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Raed Jarrar of Amnesty International USA spoke about both the Qatari government’s human rights problems and the human rights violations stemming from the Saudi-led campaign against Qatar. Ruffner noted that although Qatari citizens enjoy some political freedoms that their Gulf neighbors do not, the government consistently ranks toward the bottom for protecting political freedom and participation. Whitson and Jarrar, due to the similar missions of their respective organizations, shared many of the same observations. Both noted that as a result of the siege on Qatar, multinational families in the Gulf have been torn apart. Gulf countries—including Qatar—have long discriminated against women, Whitson explained, by refusing to grant children citizenship based on maternal nationality.

Additionally, some of the blockading countries and other allied countries in the region have used the crisis to clamp down on universal freedoms of expression. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, for example, have criminalized the act of showing support for Qatar or criticizing the actions of the Saudi-led bloc. Others, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, have shuttered critical news agencies as the crisis has gone on. Lastly, Whitson and Jarrar both pointed out Qatar’s poor human rights record regarding migrant workers. Whitson said the Qataris have a long way to go to address migrant workers’ deaths, exploitation, and forced labor. In total, the panelists agreed that Qatar has its own human rights problems, but the human rights abuses resulting from the GCC crisis must be addressed and the United States must call out the offending parties and hold them responsible.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Middle East Envoy Issues Response to Hamas-Fatah Reconciliation. On October 19, after Hamas and Fatah announced their intentions to form a unity deal, Donald Trump’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, issued the United States’ first official statement. Mr. Greenblatt stated that Hamas must satisfy three requirements if it wants to participate in any official governing capacity: commit to nonviolence and peaceful negotiations, recognize Israel’s existence, and disarm. While Greenblatt said that those requirements must be satisfied if Hamas has any role in the governing of Palestine, Palestinian officials are hoping that Hamas’s refusal to officially be part of the government will be enough to avoid punitive measures from the United States and others.

H.R. McMaster on National Security. On October 19, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster appeared at an event hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) to discuss national security priorities. Perhaps catering to the anti-Iran hawkish audience, McMaster spent his entire session discussing the Trump Administration’s new “comprehensive Iran strategy.” He argued that this administration will no longer focus “almost exclusively” on the Iran nuclear deal, but will address the full range of Iran’s threatening behavior. US goals under this strategy include neutralizing Iran’s destabilizing influence in the region, constraining Tehran’s support for militant groups, revitalizing traditional alliances in the region, denying funding to the regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and countering the threats of Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. Though he presented the goals of the administration’s new strategy, McMaster shared little in terms of actionable policy prescriptions for addressing Iran’s most problematic behavior. Even when he touched on strategies for pushing back against Iran in Iraq and Syria, there seemed to be few realistic steps to take. For instance, he suggested trying to isolate Iran for its support of the Assad regime in Syria, but he did not describe how that isolation strategy would occur, particularly when it is aligned with Russia, which has veto power in the UN Security Council.

2) State Department

Rex Tillerson to Visit the Gulf. On October 19 it was announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be visiting, among other countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar during his upcoming trip. In Saudi Arabia, Tillerson will meet with Saudi officials and participate in the first Coordination Council meeting between the Saudis and the Iraqis. Additionally, he intends to speak with Saudi officials about the ongoing GCC crisis, the war in Yemen, and other developments in the region. While in Doha, Tillerson will meet with Qatari officials to discuss bilateral areas of interest like counterterrorism, but he will also speak with them about the intra-GCC conflicts.

Keynote Address by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq. On October 18, Joseph Pennington, the administration’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq, gave a keynote address at the Middle East Institute’s half-day conference on Iraq. Pennington outlined the administration’s interests in and policies toward Iraq. At the center of the administration’s policies is the desire to see a stable, unified, and functioning Iraqi state with an inclusive, democratic government. To reach that point, he said the White House wants to eradicate what is left of the Islamic State, roll back Iran’s influence in the country’s affairs, and usher in a post-sectarian governing strategy that fosters political inclusion. The United States, Pennington said, is focusing on building up Iraq’s economic and political institutions to reach these goals.

3) Other Executive Branch Officials

UN Ambassador Haley Ups the Tough Talk on Iran. During a meeting of the United Nations Security Council this week about the Middle East, including the Israel-Palestine conflict, Ambassador Nikki Haley took her time to pillory Iran and urge the council to adopt President Trump’s new strategy toward the Islamic Republic. Haley, like Israel’s representative to the meeting, called on the UNSC to implement resolutions against Iran in full and reform its approach toward Iran more generally. The off-topic nature of Haley’s discussion of Iran was not lost on some of the members of the council. The Russian representative said it was “sad” that the United States decided to ignore the topic of the agenda.

CIA Director Pompeo Talks National Security. On October 19, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Mike Pompeo preceded H.R. McMaster at FDD’s national security summit. Like McMaster, Pompeo spent most of his time lauding the administration’s new strategy towards Iran. Most notably, Pompeo admitted that the Iran nuclear deal does, in fact, have some benefits, albeit limited ones. Additionally, Pompeo said that his agency is looking to combat the strategic alliance Iran has purportedly crafted with al-Qaeda. He stated that in the future, the National Security Agency will release documents about the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which resulted in the death of al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. These documents will supposedly support his assertion that Iran and al-Qaeda have, at times, at least coordinated their actions in order to avoid clashing.

III. Judiciary Branch

Trump’s Travel Ban Put on Hold…Again. This week, two separate federal judges placed holds on the president’s newest executive order on immigration and travel to the United States. The order was set to take effect on October 18, but judges in Hawaii and Maryland ruled that the legal challenges would likely be successful, therefore implementation of the order should be postponed. Both judges limited their rulings to the citizens of the six Muslim-majority states included in the ban, arguing that the same underlying flaws that scuttled the previous bans remain. The Department of Justice has moved to appeal both rulings.

US Companies Accused of Funding Terror. In a Washington, DC federal court this week, three US companies are facing a lawsuit accusing them of funding terrorist activities in Iraq between 2005 and 2009. The plaintiffs in the case—totaling almost 100—say that the three companies provided free medication and medical equipment to the Iraqi government, which then used the goods as a source of revenue for Shia militias that carried out deadly attacks against US soldiers. As the argument goes, the companies must have known that the Iraqi Ministry of Health—which was turning over excess goods to groups like the Jaysh al-Mahdi—was a de facto terrorist group. The companies deny any wrongdoing.