Graham flips Saudi Arabia vote: 'I'm pissed'

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) flipped his vote on whether to cut US support to the Saudis in Yemen, saying the way the administration handled the Khashoggi killing was "not acceptable."

Posted: Dec 1, 2018 12:17 PM
Updated: Dec 1, 2018 12:38 PM

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said Thursday he was working with senators from both parties to try to cut a deal to formally rebuke Saudi Arabia over its role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the latest sign that Republicans want to go further than President Donald Trump in responding to the actions of a key US ally.

Corker's announcement came hours after Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said that the CIA has now agreed to brief him on Khashoggi, following outrage from both sides of the aisle that Wednesday's Saudi and Yemen briefing on Capitol Hill did not include the Central Intelligence Agency.

Corker, a Tennessee Republican who's retiring at the end of his term in January, told CNN his hope is to reach a broad bipartisan deal that will piece together various senators' proposals taking aim at the Saudi kingdom. Then, he said, he hopes to use the new deal as a substitute for a resolution moving through the Senate that would end US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

"We are working on an amendment that would strike what's on the floor and more fully express ourselves as to what our policy should be towards Saudi Arabia," Corker said.

Exactly what that language entails -- and whether it would seek to end the US role in Yemen or seek to impose sanctions on the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman -- remains to be seen.

"I think it would have teeth," Corker said of the developing plan, which he said he hoped would be on the floor Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who co-authored the bipartisan Yemen resolution, said he's open to considering a small number of amendments to his plan, but was worried too many changes could weaken the proposal.

"There are strike-all amendments that would be too weak for me to support and I imagine the other cosponsors to support," Murphy said. "But listen, I get it. We're super out of practice in legislating, so all of this sounds absolutely fantastical, the idea that we might have to make tough decisions about what amendments to support, whether it's worth compromising the underlying bill, but this is legislating. This is what the Senate is supposed to do. So let's get into it."

The Senate on Wednesday rebuked the Trump administration by agreeing to discharge the Yemen resolution from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and send it to the Senate floor, setting up high-stakes votes next week.

Senators from both parties -- including Graham, one of Trump's most vocal allies -- seemed furious after a closed-door briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who defended the administration's response to Khashoggi's murder, saying after the briefing there was "no direct reporting" that connected bin Salman to the killing.

Graham said Thursday that he's been told that the separate CIA briefing on Saudi is now going to happen, expecting it to take place next week and after that the South Carolina Republican will decide how hard to go after the Saudis.

"The CIA called and that's good," Graham said. "They said they are going to brief me, and I said appreciate it."

At this point Graham said he believes the briefing is just for him, but he "hopes" that others can get a briefing if they want it, saying, "I would recommend they brief the entire Senate."

After speaking with the White House on Wednesday, Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he believes there is potential for a CIA briefing next week for all Senators on Khashoggi. Coons said there has been no firm commitment yet.

"I haven't heard directly from the anyone in the White House with a commitment that we will be briefed by the CIA Director but I think the message was heard clearly and my expectation is that they'll now reconsider their options," Coons said. "My hope is that we'll get a full briefing from Gina Haspel next week."

Coons also spoke with the director of White House Legislative Affairs on Wednesday and told her that the previous briefing, without senators hearing from the CIA, was a "genuine mistake."

The CIA commented Wednesday after the briefing to say that the agency had already briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"While Director Haspel did not attend today's Yemen policy briefing, the Agency has already briefed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Congressional leadership on the totality of the compartmented, classified intelligence and will continue to provide updates on this important matter to policymakers and Congress. The notion that anyone told Director Haspel not to attend today's briefing is false," according to the statement from CIA Press Secretary Timothy Barrett.

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