Congress’ Middle East panels brace for new partisan era

The newest members of the key foreign policy committees disagree on everything from Israel to Saudi Arabia.

al-monitor US Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., (L) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., (R) speak to members of the media after a news conference Jan. 24, 2019, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC.  Photo by GETTY/Alex Wong.
Bryant Harris

Bryant Harris


Topics covered

bds, foreign affairs committee, house of representatives, senate, congress

Jan 28, 2019

Congress recently finalized the membership rosters for the major Middle East policymaking committees. Emboldened by their midterm election victory, House Democrats are eager to capitalize on the bipartisan heat against Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. Meanwhile, the politics surrounding Israel and Palestine have become increasingly acrimonious as Republicans seek to spotlight freshmen House members who support the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement while advancing anti-BDS legislation — a divisive issue within the Democratic caucus.

House Foreign Affairs Committee:  Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., has said he plans to focus on the Arabian Peninsula for the committee’s first hearing. Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the committee’s top Republican, has also said that “changes still need to be made” in the US-Saudi relationship, even as he has praised some of Riyadh’s domestic reforms.

While Foreign Affairs has long been one of the most bipartisan committees, its historically pro-Israel record may be challenged. The panel unanimously backed anti-BDS legislation last year, but freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., has become the first committee member to embrace the movement. Omar has taken heat from Republicans for her stance, with fellow committee member Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., going so far as to introduce a resolution accusing her of anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, at least two freshmen on the committee have been backed by J Street, which opposes both the BDS movement and anti-BDS legislation: former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a former assistant secretary of state in the Barack Obama administration and Washington director for Human Rights Watch. On the other side of the aisle, Vice President Mike Pence’s brother, freshman Greg Pence, R-Ind., has joined the committee.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee: The committee’s new chairman, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, takes a hard line on Iran. He has been less critical of President Donald Trump’s close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman than his predecessor, retired Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. However, Risch recently told Al-Monitor that the committee is working on Saudi-related legislation, though he did not go into details.

Interestingly, the committee now has three Republicans close to Trump who all seek to pull him in different directions in the Middle East — new members Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as well as returning member Rand Paul, R-Ky. Graham is an Iran hawk who has also urged Trump to punish Prince Mohammed for Khashoggi’s death. The South Carolina Republican has also criticized Trump’s military withdrawal from Syria. Conversely, Paul has pushed Trump to stay the course on the withdrawal while urging Trump to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Cruz has been less vocal on Saudi Arabia and Syria, but introduced legislation that would force Trump to implement an even more stringent Iran sanctions regime.

Meanwhile, freshman Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a former presidential candidate, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this month criticizing Trump for his handling of foreign affairs in general. He has so far not weighed in much on Middle East policy.

House Armed Services Committee: Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., has vowed to crack down on what he views as excessive military intervention abroad. But he’s also pushed back against Trump’s Syria withdrawal, joining Engel on a critical letter to the administration. Smith has been very critical of US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. He is a key backer of legislation to end US support for the war, which committee member Ro Khanna, D-Calif., will introduce later this week.

Senate Armed Services Committee: Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., has been less vocally critical of Trump than his predecessor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Like McCain, Inhofe is an Iran hawk. He has also been wary of Trump’s pending withdrawal from Syria. Inhofe has argued that the Islamic State’s recent attack on US forces in Manbij should prompt the president to reconsider pulling out.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the committee’s top Democrat, has called for a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and voted to end support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

House Appropriations (State/Foreign Operations): Even under Democratic leadership, the House foreign aid panel has largely stayed the course on its Egyptian and Moroccan aid policies — at least for now. Although Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., signed on to a letter last year voicing concerns about Egypt’s detention of American citizens and its poor human rights record, she still ensured that Cairo received $1.3 billion in annual military aid as part of a recent compromise, despite the Republican-held Senate’s efforts to cut it. Democratic appropriators also pushed their Senate counterparts to once again allow Morocco to use US assistance in the disputed Western Sahara.

However, Lowey has criticized the Trump administration for ending all economic and humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza. Both versions of pending spending legislation would require the State Department to report on the status of US assistance.

Senate Appropriations (State/Foreign Operations): There’s only one minor change on the foreign aid panel — Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., has replaced Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss. Still, the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., finally succeeded in persuading his colleagues to end a multimillion-dollar discount for Saudi Arabia on US military training programs as part of the Middle East aid package compromise earlier this month. The new legislation could cause Saudi Arabia to lose an estimated $20 million to $30 million in savings for 2019.

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