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Biden’s second chance to get tough on the ‘pariah’ Saudis

President Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, far right, attend a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in July in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The story of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship is perhaps best summed up by an anecdote my colleague Glenn Kessler shared a few months back. When Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry was preaching a tough-on-the-Saudis message in 2004, Kessler asked a senior Saudi diplomat how worried the kingdom was.

The diplomat smirked: “That ends as soon as the new president gets his first security briefing.”

That has certainly been the story of the Biden administration thus far. Despite President Biden’s campaign-trail pledge to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” over the gruesome assassination of Washington Post global opinions columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden hasn’t followed through. He took some relatively minor steps, including releasing a report that confirmed the sordid details of the butchering and blamed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But this summer, there he was, meeting with the Saudis in hopes of alleviating high gas prices, fist-bumping the crown prince in a way that projected quite the opposite of “pariah.”

Yet suddenly, Biden has been presented with a second chance to make good on his promise — or at least come closer to it. And he’s getting some not-so-gentle nudging in that direction, both by circumstance and from high-profile members of his party.

The decision last week by OPEC Plus to reduce oil production in a way that could further drive up prices and help Russia fund its war in Ukraine has set off bipartisan calls for action. But particularly strong are the comments of some top Democrats.

Last week, it was the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Richard J. Durbin (Ill.). He cited not just Khashoggi and the OPEC Plus decision, but also “unanswered questions about 9/11.” He added: “It’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without this alliance with these royal backstabbers.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) followed that up Monday by accusing the Saudis of choosing “war criminal” Vladimir Putin over the United States. Menendez said he would use his post to halt “any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine.”

Two main options appear to be on the table: scaling back defense cooperation and arms sales, and targeting OPEC itself. But one of them is much more readily available — to the point where it would seem to be just sitting there waiting for Congress to pass it.

That would be what’s known as the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act, or NOPEC. The bill, which would explicitly give the Justice Department the power to sue oil cartels for antitrust violations and market manipulation, has been introduced in each Congress for more than two decades. And it has occasionally gained some momentum — particularly during times when gas prices are high.

Versions of it were approved by the House in 2007 and 2008, and by the Senate in 2007 — each time with at least 70 percent of the chamber voting in favor. But President George W. Bush threatened to veto it, so it never became law. The current bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this Congress by a vote of 17-4 in May, while another version passed out of the House Judiciary Committee by a voice vote.

The question is how much will there is to vote on a bill that the past suggests would pass both chambers quite easily.

Durbin is pushing hard for just that. He said last week that NOPEC should be passed in the lame duck, and he reiterated Tuesday that it must be passed.

Both Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have supported NOPEC in the past, but thus far Schumer is noncommittal about bringing it up for a vote. Asked about Durbin re-upping his call Tuesday, Schumer’s office merely referred to the majority leader’s statement last week that NOPEC was on the table.

Biden, too, has expressed support for NOPEC in the past. In a statement last week, the White House obliquely pointed in its direction, saying the administration would consult with Congress on ways to “reduce OPEC’s control over energy prices.”

But perhaps tellingly, when the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the bill in May, the White House was circumspect. Then-press secretary Jen Psaki urged that the consequences of the bill be better studied, and she pointed to the potential pitfalls.

“We do believe that the potential implications and unintended consequences of this legislation require further study and deliberation, particularly during this dynamic moment in the global energy markets brought about by President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” Psaki said. “So, we’re taking a look at it and certainly have some concerns about what the potential implications could be.”

And that’s the rub. Politicians like the idea of talking tough about Saudi Arabia, as evidenced by the long history of top U.S. politicians speaking in these kinds of terms — only to back down. It’s also easy for members of Congress to press for this action in the abstract, and it has potential value as a bluff directed toward the Saudis. Following through is quite another matter.

The Atlantic Council’s Randolph Bell last year pointed to some of the reasons he was dubious that the bill would be made law, and many would seem to apply today. Among them is the domestic effect of the potential sharp decline in oil prices. “Criminalizing the existing OPEC Plus agreement to cut production would inevitably flood the market with oil and likely send prices through the floor,” Bell wrote, saying this would have unintended consequences for oil-producing states such as Pennsylvania and Texas. There’s also the possibility that OPEC would retaliate by cutting oil production even further and causing prices to skyrocket — which wouldn’t seem particularly appealing as we near $4 per gallon again.

Indeed, some have compellingly argued that high prices make this precisely the wrong time to take this step. While there is momentum behind such a move because of obvious economic factors, doing so when prices are lower could mitigate some of the immediate economic harm.

But momentum is often required to take such a step. And the White House is saying now is the time to do, well, something.

“The timeline’s now, and I think [Biden] is going to be willing to start to have those conversations right away,” a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, John Kirby, told CNN on Monday. “I don’t think this is anything that’s going to have to wait or should wait, quite frankly, for much longer.”

We’ll soon find out whether this is just more empty rhetoric about getting tough on the Saudis. Another variable pushing in favor of action is how embarrassing this episode has been for Biden — OPEC making this announcement after he sacrificed some of his credibility this summer.

But the Saudis have certainly seen American politicians swallow their pride before.