A bipartisan Senate duo is looking to restart a debate about the U.S.-Saudi relationship –– and are employing a never-before-used section of a decades-old law to do it.
Sens. CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.) and MIKE LEE (R-Utah) have invoked Section 502B(c) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. If passed, it would force the administration to deliver a report on Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses and war on Yemen within 30 days. Should President JOE BIDEN's team not do that, then "no security assistance shall be delivered to such country except as may thereafter be specifically authorized by law." In other words, security assistance automatically stops.
Speaking to reporters in his office Tuesday evening, Murphy said this move is meant to entice a broader discussion about Washington-Riyadh ties following the kingdom's October decision to cut oil production, which raised prices as the U.S.-led West aimed to starve Russia of funds for its war on Ukraine. Saudi "effectively sided with Russia over the United States," he claimed.
In the wake of that decision, the Biden administration said it was "reviewing" its relationship with Saudi Arabia. But it's been five months and no official has outlined what U.S.-Saudi ties should look like, and there currently are no plans to detail such a vision.
The resolution is an effort to force the White House's hand to explain its inaction.
The privileged resolution was introduced Wednesday and referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Now the panel, led by Sen. BOB MENENDEZ (D-N.J.), has 10 days to consider and vote on it. But if there's no movement within that time period, then Murphy and Lee can force a floor vote to discharge the measure from the committee. If the SFRC does take it up, the bill could pass or get struck down in the voting process.
It’s unclear what SFRC leadership plans to do. "We’re having conversations with the committee," a Murphy aide told NatSec Daily. The aide was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive congressional deliberations.
Menendez in October said the Saudi/OPEC+ decision meant the U.S. "must immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia, including any arms sales and security cooperation beyond what is absolutely necessary to defend U.S. personnel and interests." Two weeks ago, Sen. JIM RISCH (R-Idaho), the top committee’s top Republican, met with Saudi Crown Prince MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN.
Murphy is pushing forward. "I have been openly frustrated by the fact that the administration has promised to reset our relationship with Saudi Arabia and we have yet to see that reset," Murphy told reporters. "The Saudis have not been shy about sticking a thumb in our eye over and over and over again, and yet the foundations of the relationship don’t change. It’s not a great look for the United States when a so-called ally treats you the way Saudi Arabia has treated us."
The National Security Council and Saudi embassy in D.C. didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Murphy-Lee play has full-throated supporters. "It’s great that they’re doing this, but sad that it’s necessary. We shouldn’t need these senators to act to get Biden to keep his promises, but here we are," said MATT DUSS, a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. BERNIE SANDERS (I-Vt.) now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Opponents say it’s unnecessary. The State Department already issues human rights reports on Saudi Arabia, the "Leahy Law" is already on the books and there are ways for agencies to scuttle announced arms deals. Critics also insist it’s bad timing, particularly after Saudi Arabia struck a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran with China’s assistance and the White House praised Riyadh’s agreement to buy $37 billion in Boeing civilian aircraft.
"If you wanted to prove Saudi concerns that America is an unreliable ally, this is a pretty good way to do it," said a Republican congressional aide who wasn’t authorized to speak to the press.
But Murphy believes the U.S. needs to show it stands up for small-d democratic principles, even if that means resetting decades-long relations with a prominent partner. "When we cozy up to these brutal dictators," the senator said, "it gravely harms our efforts to try to save global democracy."