Congressional Update – Week Ending October 12, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Proposed House Resolution Says US Assistance to Iraq’s Religious Minorities Must Be Combined with Security Plans. On October 5, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska) introduced H. Res. 1117 that expresses the sense of the House that any US assistance to Iraqi religious minorities, like Christians and Yezidis, must be paired with a clear security plan that allows for those minorities to return to their communities. Much has been said about the need to protect religious minorities in Iraq after their ancestral lands were overrun by militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS), but Fortenberry feels there is not a developed plan for ensuring future stability and security for these vulnerable groups.

Expressing Congress’s Disapproval of Proposed Shipment of Defense Articles to Bahrain. On October 10, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) introduced S.J. Res. 65, hoping to indicate lawmakers’ disapproval of the administration’s proposal to send defense articles and offer defense-related services to Bahrain. Congress has long viewed Bahrain’s government negatively due to the Sunni ruling monarch’s brutal repression of his majority-Shia population. If Paul’s joint resolution garners the requisite support from his Senate and House colleagues, and if the president does not veto it, the legislation would legally prohibit the United States from providing Bahrain with precision guided missiles, defense technology, and logistical support.

Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act. The Senate voted by unanimous consent to adopt H.R. 390, which had stalled for some time in the upper chamber. This bill charges the Department of State with gathering evidence of crimes of genocide by IS and provides assistance to the affected vulnerable communities. The bill now heads to the White House for President Trump’s signature.

Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act. Senators unanimously adopted S. 1595 after agreeing to resolve their differences with the House. The House and Senate versions differed slightly, but the final version hews close to the one outlined here. It levies more sanctions on Lebanese Hezbollah to choke off the group’s access to financing. This bill also will go to the president for signing.

Placing Sanctions on the Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act. Before leaving town for recess, senators unanimously agreed to adopt H.R. 3342—though they substituted its language with Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) STOP Using Human Shields Act. As previously noted, the bill expands the punishment for using human shields to any group that carries out such an act, but it specifically singles out Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The bill will head to the president’s desk for his signature.

Prohibiting Military Aid to Saudi Arabia Until Jamal Khashoggi Is Proven Alive and Free. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), a longtime critic of US support for Saudi Arabia, has taken steps to introduce legislation explicitly barring US military support to Riyadh until Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a columnist for The Washington Post, is found alive and free (see below for additional information about his case). Paul has supported a number of efforts in the past to block US support for the Saudis due to their disastrous war in Yemen, but he has been the first to offer legislation in response to reports that Saudi officials ordered the assassination of Khashoggi in their consulate in Istanbul. Based on the narrow reading of S. 3590, if reports that Turkish security services know for certain that the Saudis murdered the prominent journalist, and if the bill overcame the odds of passing and were to become law, US military support to Saudi Arabia would be suspended indefinitely.  

2) Hearings

Threats to the Homeland. On October 10, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held an oversight hearing with the heads of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Counterterrorism Center that exists within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In addition, the Congressional Counterterrorism Caucus received a briefing on domestic terrorism threats to the United States. Both briefings featured witnesses who described “radical Islamic terror” as a continuing threat to the United States, even when domestic, non-Islamist terrorist acts appear to be on the rise in the homeland.

Unexploded Ordnance and Demining Caucus Holds Briefing on Iraq, Syria Demining Efforts. On October 10, the co-chairs of the new Unexploded Ordnance and Demining Caucus, Reps. Jackie Speier (D-California) and David Valadao (R-California), welcomed two nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and the Halo Trust—to discuss demining and ordnance clearing efforts in Iraq and Syria. The NGO officials offered technical details about the work they do to clear unexploded ordnance in Iraq and Syria. In terms of policy considerations, they told congressional staffers that in order to continue their work in making communities safe for refugees and internally displaced persons to return home, the groups cannot afford a budget cut. At minimum, the NGO leaders said, Congress must maintain the nearly $60 million budget that was allocated for their demining efforts, and that any additional funds would help facilitate quicker cleanup.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Bernie Sanders Assesses US Foreign Policy Priorities. On October 9, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) spoke at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies to outline what he finds to be the United States’ foreign policy follies and ill-conceived priorities. Sanders was unrestrained, criticizing the current administration’s coziness with a number of partners in the Middle East. The most impassioned criticism was of Saudi Arabia after the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The senator called the kingdom a “despotic dictatorship” that exports intolerant religious ideology, one that is also ravaging its much poorer neighbor, Yemen. Sanders said he hopes Riyadh is held accountable if it is determined that government officials sanctioned an assassination of a critic. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Sanders criticized the Gulf states Qatar and the United Arab Emirates for their lobbying efforts in Washington, saying that these add to the corruption the American public believes consumes the capital. Finally, Sanders harshly criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government’s policies toward the Palestinians. The senator likened Israel’s recent Nation-State Law to apartheid and denounced Israeli policies for creating an economic and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and undermining the viability of a lasting two-state solution.

Schumer Responds to NYT Article, Saying Democrats Are Still Solidly Pro-Israel. This week, the New York Times published an article about whether new, more progressive Democrats joining Congress will have more conditional support for Israel than the country has long enjoyed from both parties on Capitol Hill. In response, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) wrote to the publication Jewish Insider to dispute that idea, going so far as to say he would introduce legislation “that strongly opposes BDS” (as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is known). Anti-BDS bills have proliferated across the United States, and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have waged successful battles in court to prove that such legislation is unconstitutional as it infringes upon one’s guaranteed right of free speech.

Members from Both Parties Decry Khashoggi Disappearance. Officials on Capitol Hill have been outraged about the reported disappearance and likely assassination of the prominent Saudi journalist living in Virginia, Jamal Khashoggi, who had visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in order to get paperwork necessary for his imminent marriage. However, Khashoggi has not been seen since, despite the Saudi government’s claim that he left the consulate shortly after he entered. The Turkish government and several notable news organizations have reported that the Saudis orchestrated Khashoggi’s visit to the consulate for the purpose of kidnapping and/or killing him. If proven to be accurate, it is believed that a decision like that—kidnapping or murdering a prominent journalist with legal residency near Washington, DC—could only be made with the express consent of some of the most powerful officials in Riyadh.

That last fact was not lost on the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), who promptly invoked a provision from the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act that will force the president and his officials to determine whether leading Saudis ran afoul of the law and are liable to be sanctioned. The letter was signed by every member of the SFRC except Rand Paul (see his proposed legislation above); he advocates for a more immediate punishment by ending military support for Riyadh’s Yemen operations. The chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee that oversees State Department funding also signed the legislation, which calls on the president and his staff to investigate whether individuals should be exposed to sanctions for a gross human rights violation. The invocation of the Magnitsky Act looks like a positive development, especially with Republican support for taking Riyadh to task. However, if the administration opts not to impose sanctions, it is unclear whether Congress has the will or muscle to pass legislation targeting the Saudi offenders. Indeed, within their own caucus, GOP senators are torn on the idea of barring weapons sales to the wealthy Gulf state.

Aside from the official letter sent by the Senate, many members of Congress, Democratic and Republican alike, have issued statements or tweets condemning the alleged assassination. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia), who represents the district Khashoggi lived in, participated in a rally outside of the journalist’s office building this week. Another 23 senators penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arguing that the president’s very own perceived attacks on journalists and on a free press contributed to the disappearance of Khashoggi.

Bipartisan Group of Senators Questions Administration’s Yemen Certification. Adding to the administration’s headaches due to actions by allies in the Gulf, seven senators wrote another letter to Secretary Pompeo regarding his decision to certify that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were abiding by applicable laws and were therefore authorized to receive US military and intelligence support for their operations in Yemen. The senators, led by a familiar duo in Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), take issue with two aspects of Pompeo’s certification report. One part of the report seems to contradict an earlier one, so the group asks clarification on whether the Saudis and Emiratis are indeed following the law regarding the purchase and transfer of military weapons from Washington. The bigger issue the senators raise is whether the secretary was being candid in his justification for the certification. As the law requires, Pompeo certified that the Saudis, Emiratis, and their coalition partners were taking the necessary steps to avoid civilian casualties in their bombing missions. But as the senators’ letter points out, facts on the ground and independent reporting suggest that not much has changed in the coalition’s behavior or tactics. Riyadh’s recalcitrance on this and the Khashoggi situation may prove to be a tipping point for lawmakers. Indeed, a Rand Paul proposal to end military support to the kingdom may actually get enough votes to loosen US-Saudi cooperation.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House More Subdued on Khashoggi’s Disappearance. While many on Capitol Hill are livid with the Saudis, the White House and top administration officials have been more subdued in their responses. Though pressure seems to be building on the president to take a more aggressive stance against his stalwart allies in Riyadh, he was at first mum about the reports, offering simply to look into the matter. In fact, he pushed back entirely against the idea of canceling arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered a similarly muzzled statement urging the Saudis to investigate the issue. Reports also state that Trump, Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Mohammed bin Salman’s top ally in the White House, Jared Kushner, all spoke with Saudi officials this week, though no readouts of the conversations were provided.

Greenblatt, Kushner Meet with Senators on Peace Plan. Though it was hardly publicized, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the administration’s officials tasked with crafting a peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians, met with a bipartisan group of senators on October 4 to discuss their plan. It is unclear what the two offered the senators as proof of progress, but Greenblatt spent the rest of the week blasting Palestinian members of Hamas in Gaza and tweeting messages of gratitude for donors who are helping to stabilize Gaza after the administration moved millions of dollars away from humanitarian programs there.

2) State Department

Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Speaks About Crises in the Middle East. On October 9, the Atlantic Council held a conference to explore “The Arc of Crisis in the MENA Region.” Joan Polaschik, who serves as the Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, gave the administration’s positions on the state of affairs in the Arab world and the broader Middle East. Expectedly, Polaschik pointed to Iran as the most destabilizing force in the region, adding that many of the crises there stem from “dysfunctional political circumstances” as well as a youth bulge, with young people coming of age at a time when governments and economies are not responding to their needs. While the United States is willing and able to help partners in the region relieve these stresses, Polaschik was quick to note that these were not problems Washington alone could fix. That is why, she said, the United States is working with partners in Syria, Libya, and Yemen to find political solutions to the conflicts raging there and to stabilize the region as a whole. In Syria, she pointed to Iran and Russia as the troublesome parties, but she also said that Washington was making efforts to persuade the Saudis to de-escalate the fighting in Yemen and find a political solution.

Pompeo Gives Address to JINSA. On October 10, Mike Pompeo was given an award by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). His prepared remarks mainly reiterated the administration’s statements about its success in the region (e.g., moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, taking a hard line against Palestinians and Iran, and boasting about cultivating the strongest US-Israel relations ever). In answering a question about the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its efforts to abide by the Taylor Force Act, Pompeo told the audience that the PA has not made any tangible efforts to stop what the administration considers payments to terrorists; therefore, he had signed a memo withholding $165 million allocated to the Palestinians. Per the Taylor Force Act, any money that the PA spends to help prisoners or the families of deceased Palestinians accused of committing acts of terror against Israelis must be withheld from the appropriated budget. This sum, Pompeo said, reflected the amount of money the PA spent supporting those aforementioned individuals or groups; many believe that such funding serves as an incentive for Palestinians to carry out attacks.

3) UN Ambassador

Haley Set to Leave Office by January 2019. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced this week that she will be resigning from her cabinet position at year’s end. Haley was often described as a moderating voice in the administration—though there is a great deal of evidence to dispute such an idea. She will be leaving with an unremarkable record of ushering in change at the United Nations, but her political reputation is more intact than most who have exited this administration. Dina Powell, who was widely believed to be tapped as Haley’s potential successor, took her name out of the running this week. Interestingly, retiring Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) has been floated as a potential nominee, but it is uncertain whether his intermittent disputes with the president will scuttle his chances.