The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, traditionally a haven of bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill, has become ensnared in a bitter and rare dispute between its top Republican and Democrat over separate bills on Saudi Arabia.
Both Sen. James Risch, the Republican chairman of the committee, and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee, have accused each other of breaking agreements on how to proceed with two bills that would ramp up pressure on Saudi Arabia following the kingdom’s role in the deadly conflict in Yemen and Saudi officials’ culpability in the 2018 murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The dispute between Risch and Menendez risks unraveling the bipartisan nature of the committee, congressional aides say, and some experts fear it could also undercut Congress’s critical voice on Saudi Arabia over human rights violations in Yemen.
In a break from long-standing tradition, Risch scheduled a meeting for the committee to vote on the bills this week over the objections of his Democratic counterpart, Menendez. The move angered Democrats, but Republicans said it was necessary to proceed with votes. Historically, Republican and Democratic leaders on the committee have only scheduled meetings once both sides agreed; this tradition of “comity”—based on the belief that politics should stop at the water’s edge—set Foreign Relations apart from nearly all of the other Senate committees that have fallen into increasingly partisan and politicized gridlocks.
“Blowing comity is equal to going nuclear as far as the fundamental way in which the Foreign Relations Committee has historically been able to work,” said one Democratic Senate aide.
“If [this is] a de facto rule going forward, that’s obviously hugely significant. And it does contribute to the overall corrosion of norms and rules in the Senate that both sides have contributed to,” said Daniel Vajdich, a former Republican aide on the committee and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank. “This is definitely something that would put SFRC in a different category than it’s traditionally been.”
Beyond internal Senate battles, the dispute also represents the latest fight on Capitol Hill to pare back Washington’s cozy relationship with Riyadh under President Donald Trump and curb U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. The conflict in Yemen is considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Risch put forward a bill, backed by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Chris Coons, that would force the secretary of state to conduct a review of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and deny or revoke visas to some members of the Saudi royal family as reprisal for the kingdom’s human rights violations. Republican Senate aides told Foreign Policy that Risch consulted with the White House and State Department on the bill.
Menendez and Republican Sen. Todd Young introduced a bill that takes a harsher line on Riyadh, backed by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins as well as several Democrats. Their bill halts some U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, bars U.S. refueling of Saudi aircraft engaged in Yemen, and puts sanctions on people involved in the murder of Khashoggi.
Critics of Risch’s bill say it doesn’t go far enough in punishing Saudi Arabia, while critics of the Menendez and Young-led bill say it is doomed to fail, as Trump is expected to veto it. “Risch isn’t trying to be soft on the Saudis, he’s trying to actually do something relevant, he’s trying to reassess the relationship,” one Republican Senate aide said.
But any hope of a united front may be lost as Risch and Menendez lock horns through arcane Senate rules over how Congress should approach one of the United States’ most controversial partners in the Middle East.