Congress faces tough choices on Saudi Arabia in wake of Khashoggi killing

A lot of tough talk about Saudi Arabia now cascades down Capitol Hill after the suspected death of Jamal Khashoggi.

Talk is one thing. Action is another.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., contends he “can’t imagine there will be no response” after the Khashoggi incident. The Kentucky Republican noted there are periodically “strains” in the American-Saudi relationship. But McConnell asserted the U.S. deals with the Saudis because of “aligned interests” in the region. The Majority Leader called it a “pragmatic relationship.”

But what exactly can Congress do to the Saudis? What is it willing to do? And when?

First, nothing will likely happen regarding Saudi Arabia for a while - if at all. Both bodies of Congress are out for the midterm elections until November 13.

Lawmakers of both parties have been vocal about Khashoggi’s fate. And when it comes to Congress, volume doesn’t always equate proportional action.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox the U.S. should “sanction the hell” out of Saudi Arabia and warned of “a bipartisan tsunami building here against Saudi Arabia if they did in fact (kill Khashoggi).” Graham predicted that such Saudi culpability “would be a game changer to the Nth degree.”

“With the exception of Israel, I trust every country in the Middle East as much as I trust gas station sushi,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.

“Murder is murder,” thundered Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., adding that the U.S. shouldn’t “bow and scrape” just to curry favor with the Saudis.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called the U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance a “complex and complicated relationship.” But Durbin added “if we can’t draw a clear line, shame on us.”

“I don’t care who will get upset,” said Leahy about possible retribution for the Saudis.

And there’s the problem. Which side needs the other more? The U.S. or Saudi Arabia? The U.S. needs a reasonably steady hand in the Middle East besides just Israel and Jordan. But there’s concern that the use of even harsh words by the Americans against the Saudis - let alone Congressionally-approved sanctions, restricted diplomatic relations, diminished arms sales or other ramifications - could inflame the kingdom. Unrest in Saudi Arabia could easily destabilize the region. On one hand, the best-case scenario is that the U.S. has an ebb in relations with the Saudis. But as one Congressional source confided to Fox, the worst case scenario would “prompt another 9-11” if Washington pushes too far.

The U.S. has long tried to operate on both sides of the fence with Saudi Arabia. Such duality is likely essential when dealing with Saudi Arabia.

“We deal with imperfect allies all the time,” said Graham.

This is why Leahy’s comment about not worrying who will get “upset” is critical. It’s always a juggling act with Saudi Arabia. Even inside the kingdom. And rattling the wrong Saudi factions could reap grave consequences.

Still, how much impact can Congress have on Saudi Arabia? Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., joined the top Democrat on the panel Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, asking the Trump Administration to launch an “investigation and Global Magnitsky sanctions determination.”

The 2012 Magnitsky Act is a lever Congress can pull to punish foreign powers for extrajudicial killings, torture, or detention. President Obama signed the act into law after Russia arrested lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and beat him to death while in custody in 2008. Magnitsky faced scrutiny after unearthing a Kremlin tax fraud scheme.

Under the law, a clock began to run once Corker and Menendez fired off their missive to the White House. The Trump Administration has four months to investigate if a foreign power committed human rights abuses. If so, the U.S. can impose sanctions.

Congress and the President can certainly move more quickly if the situation merits. But it’s hard to see how that could happen with lawmakers entering a lame duck session after the midterm elections. It’s likely that the new Congress would tackle any prospective discipline for Saudi Arabia in 2019.

Lawmakers of both parties have long been suspect of Saudi Arabia. In 2016, Congress approved a measure to allow victims of those killed on 9/11 to sue the Saudi government over purported terrorism ties. President Obama vetoed the plan. But Congress successfully overrode the President, the only veto override of Mr. Obama’s career.

The Khashoggi affair also flags a credibility problem for the administration.

President Trump this week applauded Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., for body slamming reporter Ben Jacobs last year.

“Never wrestle him,” proclaimed Mr. Trump about Gianforte to howls of laughter. “Any guy that can do a body slam – he’s my guy.”

In other words, is the Trump Administration truly concerned about violence against journalists when it engages on the Khashoggi affair in one breath and then Mr. Trump makes light of physical violence against the press in another?

There are also questions about how some Republicans in Congress may ignore the Khashoggi issue depending on Mr. Trump’s disposition toward the Saudis. Congressional outrage may simmer regardless. But Corker will be gone. The late-Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is no longer with us. Moderate Republicans are poised to lose or are retiring after the election. It’s unclear who on the GOP side of the aisle may be willing to call out the Trump Administration if they bungle this matter.

There are now impassioned conversations about Saudi Arabia on Capitol Hill. The language and potential action would be more intense if Congress were in session now. But it’s doubtful anything will unfold on the Khashoggi front for months due to the special complexities between Washington and Riyadh. A new Congress will tangle with this issue after January 3. By then, it’s quite possible that lawmakers may have moved on, tip-toeing through whatever may be the next international crisis.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.