Senate GOP Shows More Zeal to Challenge Trump on Foreign Policy

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Republicans are showing an increasing willingness to challenge President Donald Trump on foreign policy by voting for legislation that contradicts him publicly after they have failed to sway him privately.

Some conservatives are indicating they may join Democrats to defy the White House in a vote planned Wednesday on a resolution that would withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Republican senators also are sponsoring legislation to impose additional sanctions on Russia and are pushing additional punishment for Saudi Arabia over the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Republican senators generally have been reluctant to criticize Trump on domestic issues -- in part because of the president’s sway with GOP voters -- though at least a few plan to vote Thursday against the president’s emergency declaration to fund border wall construction. GOP hesitancy fades on foreign policy as Trump veers from party orthodoxy.

The resolution on Yemen would direct the president to remove U.S. armed forces from hostilities in or affecting that country within 30 days unless authorized by Congress. It’s sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke against the Yemen resolution on the chamber’s floor Wednesday, calling it "counterproductive" and urging colleagues to vote against it. Still, he said "it is right for senators to have grave concerns over some aspects of Saudi Arabia’s behavior," particularly the killing of Khashoggi.

‘Some Proxy’

"We should not use this specific vote on a specific policy decision as some proxy for all the Senate’s broad feelings about foreign affairs," the majority leader said.

The House passed a slightly different version of the Yemen resolution last month, and is expected to vote on it again in the coming weeks. The Trump administration threatened a veto Wednesday if the measure gets to the president’s desk.

With Democrats controlling the House and GOP senators joining with Democrats to rebuke Trump, the odds are higher that Congress in coming months could send the president legislation that contradicts his will and forces a veto.

Senate GOP Shows More Zeal to Challenge Trump on Foreign Policy

"Congress is definitely stepping up and expressing its views," said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and Trump ally. "When you see things like the announcement we’re leaving Syria before we even tell the military or our allies, that caused a lot of concern and so we’ve had some discussions with the national security adviser and other White House staff about how senators could be helpful."

Bucking Convention

Trump "doesn’t come from the conventional -- what I would call national security Republican perspective,” Cornyn said.

The numbers of GOP defectors so far hasn’t been large enough to overturn a presidential veto, should foreign policy legislation challenging the president pass the House and Senate. House Republicans have been less willing to take on the president than GOP members of the Senate.

GOP willingness to buck the president began growing last summer with a vote reaffirming U.S. support for NATO. The measure drew support from nearly every Republican in the Senate and followed Trump’s statements questioning the alliance’s relevance and warnings that the U.S. was spending too much money to protect European nations and getting too little in return.

Saudi Focus

Complaints from Republicans grew late last year when the administration defended Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. That resulted in seven Republicans joining with Democrats on a vote to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-backed war in Yemen. The same day, the Senate unanimously assigned blame for the killing to Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But that dissent was blunted by the House, which was then controlled by Republicans. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan often blocked votes on measures that could embarrass the president.

U.S. policy in the Middle East has been a particular point of friction. GOP senators said the president’s December announcement that he was pulling U.S. forces out of Syria case as a surprise and has pushed them to speak out more forcefully against some of Trump’s policies.

"Many of my colleagues -- and I join them -- feel like we don’t have an overarching plan or policy for the Middle East," said Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican.

Terrorism Fight

In January, 47 Republican senators joined Democrats to vote for an amendment pushed by McConnell that reinforced U.S. commitments to the fight against Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria and Afghanistan. The measure, part of a broader bill, hasn’t come up in the House yet.

Some Republicans dispute the notion of a rift between the president and the Congress on foreign policy, though acknowledge they’ve tried to sway the president.

"The president has his ideas, as do all of us in the Senate," Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. "We work together in pursuit of the values and interests we share in common.”

Senate GOP Shows More Zeal to Challenge Trump on Foreign Policy

Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican and chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, said that Trump has softened his criticisms of NATO over the past two years as lawmakers have impressed upon him the importance of the alliance.

"I think some of our actions may have helped move that along," Blunt said in an interview.

Stepping in

Democrats said their GOP colleagues initially thought they could persuade Trump to change course on foreign policy.

"His foreign policy just gets further and further off the rails," said Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut and Foreign Relations member. "I think they’ve now come to the conclusion that he’s not getting any better, so they have to step in."

Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida said their opposition to Trump on some foreign policy is part of a broader effort to reclaim congressional oversight and authority of U.S. conduct overseas instead of a reaction to Trump specifically.

Senate GOP Shows More Zeal to Challenge Trump on Foreign Policy

Graham, one of the president’s staunchest defenders, said the subject of additional sanctions on Saudi Arabia didn’t come up during a recent meeting with the president. Graham has consistently called for a stronger response to the killing of Khashoggi, up to and including additional sanctions and the possible suspension of arms sales. Graham said he wants to sanction Prince Mohammed, a move the administration has resisted.

"We need to do that sanctions bill,” Graham said.

Although much of the legislation being proposed isn’t binding, these votes "can have a powerful effect by sending a signal to the White House and foreign powers that Congress disagrees with the president," said Jordan Tama, a professor specializing in foreign policy at American University.

Still, some members say that the president has changed his views based on pushback from Congress.

"He’s talking about wanting other countries to contribute more to NATO’s mission in order to make NATO stronger, which I think is a little different than the way it was articulated out of the gate," said Representative Lee Zeldin, a Republican from New York and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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