The Senate is preparing to confront the White House over its support for Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of journalist Jamal Khashoggi's killing, moving toward a floor vote next week to curtail US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, while a powerful committee prepares to deliver a swift rebuke to the kingdom's crown prince over his alleged role in the murder.
But the moves may end up amounting to little more than a symbolic rebuke to Saudi Arabia and the White House. GOP leaders are navigating complicated Senate procedures and may limit next week's floor debate to focus narrowly on the Yemen resolution, a move that could punt floor action on bills to suspend arm sales with Saudi Arabia and sanction the crown prince until next year.
Still, senators warned Thursday that taking initial steps on those measures -- even if they don't immediately become law -- would send a stern message that the United States will not tolerate Saudi's actions in Yemen, the killing of Khashoggi and the kingdom's efforts to cover it up.
"It's un-American," said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, referring to President Donald Trump's suggestions that US arms sales with Saudi Arabia are more important than a strong response to the murder of a journalist. "When we provide aid to other countries, we do so because we want to see good things happen in those countries. We espouse American values around the world. And to say, 'Well, no. They're going to buy some arms for us and so it's OK to kill a journalist,' sends exactly the wrong message about who we are as a country."
At a private lunch Thursday, GOP senators grappled with the historic process of using the War Powers Act of 1973 to end US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. It's a process, senators said, that hasn't been used before in a similar way -- so whatever action the Senate takes as soon as next week would set a precedent for future Senate action over the War Powers Act.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, cautioned senators at the lunch about the seriousness of undertaking floor debate on the Yemen resolution next week, according to multiple attendees. Part of the concern is that this particular process allows for senators to offer any amendments they want to irrespective of the underlying measure. That means senators could offer amendments on issues ranging from repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act to gun control -- difficult votes on thorny subjects that senators want to avoid.
So senators decided to take this unprecedented step: Corker will go to the floor and make a motion to allow only "germane" amendments to be offered to the Yemen measure. That motion would require only a simple majority of senators to approve, something that would set the standard for future Senate debates over the War Powers Act.
The implication of the move is this: Only the Yemen measure and amendments related to that subject will be allowed during the floor debate, which could start as soon as Wednesday. That means any effort to rebuke Saudi Arabia specifically over Khashoggi's death -- such as sanctions against the crown prince -- may have to wait until next year for floor action.
Even if none become law, Corker said there's an overwhelming consensus for a strong US response to Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi's death, criticizing Trump's refusal to side with the CIA's assessment that the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was behind the murder.
Corker wants his committee to take action next week, and he's still trying to hammer out an agreement with the committee's top Democrat, Bob Menendez of New Jersey. As soon as Tuesday, there could be votes on two measures. One is a sweeping bill by Menendez and Republican Todd Young of Indiana that would punish Saudi officials and others for contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and slap those responsible for the Khashoggi murder with sanctions. The other is a bipartisan but nonbinding resolution formally condemning bin Salman for a range of issues, including the Khashoggi murder. It remains to be seen whether those measures will come to the floor before year's end.
But the resolution to stop US involvement in the war in Yemen -- cosponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, and Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat-- could be on the floor as soon as Wednesday, despite the Trump administration's furious lobbying against it.
"A vote on the Lee-Sanders-Murphy resolution is a very tough message to Saudi Arabia that the relationship is changing, and you can interpret that as a message on the Yemen war, but you can also interpret that as a message on Khashoggi," Murphy said. "I don't think you have to get too fancy. I think the underlying resolution, if it passes the Senate with a bipartisan vote, is a really strong signal that something different is going on here."
At a private meeting Thursday morning, five senators -- Corker, Young, Murphy, Menendez and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican -- were aiming to figure out a way forward on all three proposals. While Graham and Corker expressed concern about the Yemen resolution, there was consensus to proceed with suspending arm sales with Saudi Arabia and hitting the crown prince with sanctions.
The White House has not been involved in these discussions, but Corker said he plans to go to the White House next week to discuss the sensitive topic, though he would not say with whom he would meet. Graham said it's clear to the White House where he personally stands on the matter.
Graham said while sometimes "bad behavior" has to be tolerated in politics, "if you get in the orbit of the United States, if you want to buy our weapons and integrate your economy into ours, there's a certain price to be paid."
"Don't chop somebody up in a consulate," Graham said. "That's not too much to ask. And how bizarre is this? How crazy is this guy to think you could lure somebody to a consulate in Turkey, who basically is a foe of Saudi Arabia, kill him, and nobody would say anything about it? That shows to me a depth of dangerousness that we've got to deal with."
This story has been updated with additional developments.