Vote condemning kingdom comes as bipartisan group of senators vows to apply sanctions pressure on it in 2019.
As the US Senate moved to vote on Thursday on a resolution condemning Saudi Arabia for its conduct of the war in Yemen and the assassination of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a bipartisan group of senators vowed to impose concrete sanctions on the kingdom in legislation next year.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said on Wednesday that the group plans to advance legislation imposing financial penalties and prohibiting arms sales when the new Congress begins in January.
In some of their strongest comments to date, senators signalled they would like to see Saudi Arabia remove Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from power.
“To our friends in Saudi Arabia, you are never going to have a relationship with the United States Senate unless things change. And it’s up to you to figure out what that change needs to be,” Graham, a congressional ally of President Donald Trump, told reporters at a Capitol Hill press conference.
“From my point of view, the current construct is not working. There is a relationship between countries and individuals. The individual, the crown prince, is so toxic, so tainted, so flawed that I can’t ever see myself doing business in the future with Saudi Arabia unless there is a change there,” Graham said.
Members of Congress have said US intelligence has tied the October 2 murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to Prince Mohammed, who also launched a Saudi-led military campaign in neighbouring Yemen in 2015.
The Senate voted 60-39 on Wednesday to advance debate on a war powers resolution that would force the Trump administration to withdraw US military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, where an estimated tens of thousands of people have been killed in what has been described by the United Nations as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
A final vote on the measure is expected on Thursday, in a largely symbolic action that legislators said is designed to send a firm rebuke to both Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration.
“Our legislation doesn’t say it’s the end of our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Menendez told reporters. “We are saying Saudi Arabia has to change.”
Sentiment voiced in both the House and Senate this week signals a shift in congressional support for Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed. In addition to the war in Yemen and the murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, legislators cited the 2017 forced detention in Riyadh of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the unilateral embargo of Qatar, which hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East.
They characterised Saudi foreign policy in the region as irrational and Prince Mohammed’s leadership as unstable.
“What’s happening in Yemen and the humanitarian disaster there is unacceptable,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the future Saudi sanctions bill.
In a sign of potential Republican support, Senator Jim Risch, an Idaho politician who will be chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the new Congress, was among 11 Republican senators who voted in favour of the war powers resolution on Wednesday. Menendez will be the top Democrat on the committee.
“We will find a way, a process, a procedure to make sure we get a vote. I think that will send the most defining action we can to Saudi Arabia,” Menendez said. The bipartisan legislation set for next year is co-sponsored by Menendez and Senator Todd Young, an Indiana Republican.
“The resolution sends a very clear signal to this administration and to Saudi Arabia that, if this administration doesn’t reorient our policy toward Saudi Arabia, then Congress is going to do it,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat whose state is home to several key US weapon manufacturers.
“Saudi Arabia is our ally, but when your ally jumps into a pool of sharks, you are not obligated to follow. And Saudi Arabia crossed a line, I would argue, long ago,” Murphy said, citing evidence the Saudis are using American-made bombs to deliberately target civilians and civilian infrastructure in Yemen.
The House of Representatives will not take up the war powers resolution despite Senate approval after a narrow 206-203 procedural vote on Wednesday. In any case, the White House had threatened a presidential veto. Trump on Tuesday reiterated his support for Prince Mohammed’s leadership, telling the Reuters news agency in an Oval Office interview, “He’s the leader of Saudi Arabia. They’ve been a very good ally.”
The US Congress is rushing to complete its business for the year in a “lame duck” session and focus on Capitol Hill is beginning to turn to 2019. Democrats will control the House of Representatives when the new Congress is seated in January, while Republicans will retain control of the Senate until the next election in 2020.