Congressional Update – Week Ending August 17, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Defense Spending Moves Ahead in Senate. This week, President Donald Trump signed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2019 into law. The NDAA authorizes the Defense Department to spend money that Congress appropriates and generally serves to direct policy plans. That latter step—actually appropriating the monies that will be spent—is a tough task, and senators agreed to move to debate a funding bill this week. The House previously passed its version, H.R. 6157, which allocates a budget of roughly $675 billion to the Pentagon. The Senate is using H.R. 6157 as a vehicle to pass a bill its members crafted—using S. Amdt. 3695 as a substitute for the House language—that funds the Defense Department at about the same amount, but only differs from the House’s bill on the margins. As the full Senate prepares to debate the bill further next week, the Trump Administration has voiced concerns about some provisions that fund the anti-Islamic State fight, and other security cooperation efforts, at levels below Trump’s requested amounts.

NDAA Sets Reporting Requirements for Foreign Media. It is worth noting that section 1085 of the aforementioned NDAA could have implications for one of the Arab world’s leading media entities: Al Jazeera. This section of the law mandates that foreign media companies must register with the US government and share their funding sources. This could be a move by anti-Qatar figures who distrust the media organization and who support Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their spat with Doha, as both Gulf states have long complained about Al Jazeera.

2) Congress vs. Trump Administration

Battle Lines Between Congress, White House on Middle East. As mentioned above, President Trump signed the fiscal year 2019 NDAA into law this week, but not without issuing a signing statement full of caveats. Such statements have been used by previous administrations to notify Congress that while the president may agree with the underlying goal of the bill, there are provisions by which he does not think he has to abide. In this particular example, President Trump and his staff argue that certain reporting requirements regarding Syria (outlined in Sec. 1231) and Yemen (Sec. 1290) may not be met should the executive branch deem them unfeasible. Other provisions, like Sec. 1233 regarding Syria, Sec. 1236 regarding Iran, Sec. 1274 regarding Yemen, and Sections 1033 and 1035 regarding the use of Guantanamo Bay as a detention facility are perceived as limits to the president’s constitutional authority. Ultimately, the signing statement is not so much law as it is a notification to the broader executive branch that the president is complying with and enforcing Congress’s legislation as the administration has interpreted it.

Trump’s opposition to the parts of the NDAA relating to Yemen will likely prove to be extremely problematic to members on Capitol Hill, especially as lawmakers grow increasingly agitated with the actions of the Saudi- and Emirati-led, anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen. On August 9, the coalition killed or wounded dozens, including scores of children, after bombing a Yemeni school bus. In response, Secretary of Defense James Mattis claimed that the United States is not involved in the Yemen war; but he also said he dispatched a general to talk with the Saudis about investigating the strike. The rest of the administration was silent on the actions taken by the coalition. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to even raise the issue with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on a call earlier in the week, according to the State Department’s readout.

Members of Congress have been less reserved on the issue. On August 13, Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), the second ranking member of the Democratic House leadership, wrote a letter to Secretaries Mattis and Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates. Hoyer and 28 Democratic colleagues are requesting a briefing on Yemen and the United States’ role in the fighting there. Furthermore, California Representative Ted Lieu (D) penned his own letter to the Department of Defense’s inspector general calling for an investigation into the United States’ role in the death of civilians in Yemen.

Across the capitol, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) wrote to the chief of US Central Command (CENTCOM), General Joseph Votel, asking him to clarify his answers to several questions she had previously posed to him about US involvement in Yemen. Following the attack on the Yemeni school bus, Senator Warren has asked Votel whether Washington is, in fact, involved in aiding the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition to identify targets in Yemen, among other issues. All of this comes at a time when Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) has already placed a hold on Saudi or Emirati purchases of precision-guided missiles because of their actions in the Yemen war.

If the president does ultimately refuse to abide by the reporting and certification requirements outlined in the NDAA, one can expect the fight between the White House and Congress over US involvement in Yemen to escalate.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Kushner Prevails in Debate Over Freezing Palestinian Aid. Late last week it was reported that senior White House advisor Jared Kushner prevailed in a debate with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on freezing funds that Washington uses to support Palestinians. Along with funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Washington spends roughly $230 million every year on projects and services that directly support Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The administration has predictably hamstrung UNRWA by cutting crucial funding to the group. Now, Kushner is eyeing a $200 million freeze of the $230 million already budgeted by Congress and he is under the impression that freezing that money will increase his leverage in negotiations over his not-yet-released peace plan.

Although the White House can push for the cuts, a formal rescission of the $200 million would need an act of Congress. However, per congressional procedure, lawmakers can debate such a “rescission package” for up to 45 days. This late in the fiscal year, if Trump and his team follow through, as is being reported, they could de facto freeze that money by leaving Congress little time to debate the package. The 45-day debate period would carry through the end of fiscal year 2018 and, after that, those funds cannot be spent. Despite such a drastic cut, Kushner and others in the administration would prefer that Washington continue funding the $25 million budget out of the $30 million left to a network of hospitals in East Jerusalem.

In the same vein, the Trump Administration announced on Friday that it would not spend some $200 million that Congress allocated for stabilizing Syria; instead, it would reprogram that money for different uses.

Trump Nominates Ambassadors for Tunisia, Comoros. This week, President Trump formally nominated ambassadors to two Arab League states: Tunisia and Comoros. To the intelligence community and military officials, Tunisia is seen as a capable ally, so it is past time that Washington base a permanent ambassador there. Trump nominated senior Foreign Service officer Donald Blome, who currently serves as the chargé d’affaires at Libya’s external office, which is based in Tunis, to serve as ambassador. Michael Pelletier, another career Foreign Service officer, will serve as ambassador to Comoros, but he will primarily be stationed in neighboring Madagascar.

Bolton to Visit Israel Next Week. National Security Advisor John Bolton is scheduled to travel to Geneva, Switzerland next week, where he will meet with his Russian counterpart to discuss, among other things, Syria and Iran. Additionally, the White House stated that during the course of his trip, Bolton will also stop in Tel Aviv for meetings with officials there.

2) State Department

State Department Designates Iranian-Based Al-Muamen as SDGT. The State Department announced this week that it was designating Qassim Abdullah Ali Ahmed (a.k.a. Qassim al-Muamen) as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” (SDGT) for his role in leading the recently sanctioned Bahraini group, the al-Ashtar Brigades.

Pompeo Speaks with Abadi, Barzani about Forming Iraq’s Government. On August 14,  Secretary Mike Pompeo spoke separately with Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan Nechirvan Barzani. In both conversations, Pompeo lauded the collaborative efforts between Baghdad and Irbil, particularly in abiding by Iraq’s constitutional framework for resolving disputes and in their joint security efforts. Pompeo also called on the two to form a new, moderate Iraqi government in the wake of parliamentary elections.

Pompeo Continues Mideast Outreach, Talks with Kuwaiti, Jordanian, and UN Officials. Along with the phone calls to leaders in the United Arab Emirates and Iraq, Pompeo spoke with Kuwait’s Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid. According to the DoS readout, the pair spoke about issues of mutual concern, including regional security and development issues in Iraq. As Kuwait has attempted to mediate the long-running dispute between Gulf Cooperation Council partners Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, it is very likely Pompeo and al-Khalid broached that topic as well. Pompeo also held a meeting in Washington with the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The two discussed the most pressing issues regarding Syria: a political solution for ending the war; the safe return of refugees; and preventing another round of humanitarian disaster as the fight for Idlib rages. Finally, Pompeo spoke on the phone with Jordanian Prime Minister Ayman al-Safadi about regional security developments of mutual concern.

Pompeo to Form “Iran Action Group.” On August 16, Secretary Pompeo called a brief press conference to announce that he was building a team within the State Department to plan, coordinate, and execute comprehensive and intergovernmental policies for countering Iran. The Iran Action Group, as it will be called, will be centralized and it will report directly to Pompeo. Pompeo also announced that he was appointing Brian Hook to oversee the body and was giving him the title of “Special Representative for Iran.” Hook then spoke for a few minutes to reiterate Pompeo’s points regarding the goals of the Iran Action Group and the severity of Iran’s malign behavior.