In late March 2020, in the early throes of the coronavirus pandemic, two Republican senators introduced legislation to remove American troops and missile defense systems from Saudi Arabia. That bill, introduced by Senators Dan Sullivan and Kevin Cramer, was a response to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries slow-walking its decision to cut oil production as global demand plummeted. Shortly after President Donald Trump personally pressured Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, OPEC cut its output.
Two years later, the situation is almost wholly reversed: On Wednesday, OPEC and its non-OPEC allies—a coalition often called OPEC Plus, which includes Russia—announced that it would slash oil production dramatically, a decision that could increase energy costs for the United States and Europe, further risk global recession amid rising inflation, and aid Russia in its war effort in Ukraine by increasing the price of oil. The decision came despite entreaties from the White House and prompted swift rebukes from the Biden administration.
In a joint statement, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, said Biden was “disappointed by the shortsighted decision.” “In light of today’s action, the Biden administration will also consult with Congress on additional tools and authorities to reduce OPEC’s control over energy prices,” Deese and Sullivan said. The White House also announced the release of 10 million more barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve during the next month.
This decision could also have implications for congressional Democrats, already struggling to defend their majorities, who could be punished at the polls as the price at the gas pump rises. In response to the decision by OPEC Plus, Democratic Representatives Tom Malinowski, Sean Casten, and Susan Wild introduced legislation virtually identical to that of Senators Sullivan and Cramer two years earlier—a bill that would remove U.S. troops and missile defense systems from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Seriously, when you compare the two bills, the second one practically reads as if it were copied and pasted from the first.) Malinowski and Wild in particular are embroiled in extremely competitive races this year.
“If Saudi Arabia and the UAE hope to maintain a relationship with the United States that has been overwhelmingly beneficial to them, they must show a greater willingness to work with us—not against us—in advancing what is now our most urgent national security objective: the defeat of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” Malinowski, Casten, and Wild said in a statement. “It is time for the United States to resume acting like the superpower in our relationship with our client states in the Gulf. They have made a choice and should live with the consequences.”
Congressional Democrats fume that the U.S. has stuck by the Saudi government, and particularly bin Salman, even amid the country’s myriad human rights abuses, the ongoing war in Yemen, and the regime’s authorization of the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was based in the U.S. Biden, who had pledged on the campaign trail that Saudi Arabia would be a “pariah,” did a presidential pivot upon entering office, attempting a transition to fist-bump diplomacy. But whatever hoped-for pay-offs have been slow in arriving, and patience is now wearing thin.
In a Tuesday interview with CNBC, Senator Chris Murphy averred that “it’s time for a wholesale reevaluation of the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia.” Representative Ro Khanna, who has previously led bipartisan efforts to end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, said that Biden “should make it clear that we will stop supplying the Saudis with weapons and air parts if they fleece the American people and strengthen Putin by making drastic production cuts.”
Senator Bernie Sanders said, in a tweet on Wednesday, “OPEC’s decision to cutback on production is a blatant attempt to increase gas prices at the pump that cannot stand. We must end OPEC’s illegal price-fixing cartel, eliminate military assistance to Saudi Arabia, and move aggressively to renewable energy.”
Senator Dick Durbin, the majority whip, also called out the Saudi rulers in a tweet on Thursday. “From unanswered questions about 9/11 & the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, to conspiring w/ Putin to punish the US w/ higher oil prices, the royal Saudi family has never been a trustworthy ally of our nation. It’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without their alliance,” Durbin wrote. (Lest we forget, there have been questions about the Saudi government’s connection to the September 11 terrorist attacks for two decades.)
In a statement, Durbin also called for a vote on the NOPEC Act, the cleverly named bill that would allow the federal government to take action against price fixing by OPEC Plus members. The NOPEC Act passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee by a bipartisan vote earlier this year.
Whether this frustration will translate into action is still uncertain—Congress will be in recess through November, and the legislation would need support from at least 10 GOP senators to pass in the upper chamber.
“What Saudi Arabia did to help Putin continue to wage his despicable, vicious war against Ukraine will long be remembered by Americans. We are looking at all the legislative tools to best deal with this appalling and deeply cynical action, including the NOPEC bill,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
For his part, Senator Dan Sullivan blamed the situation on Biden; when asked whether he would support the legislation just introduced by the trio of House Democrats, the Alaska Republican’s spokesperson pointed to a Wednesday Facebook post from Sullivan that did not directly address the bill. Rather, the post accuses Biden of “begging dictators overseas to produce more energy” while “waging war on the American and Alaskan energy sector at home with policies designed to put domestic producers out of business.”
“Now that these dictators have rejected his groveling and announced their plans to cut production, the President is going back to his favorite playbook—scapegoating America’s energy producers and announcing he will tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to save the day,” Sullivan wrote.
Cramer, who introduced the legislation to withdraw U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia with Sullivan in 2020, also maintained that the decision to cut output was “particularly problematic because the Biden Administration is doing everything in its power to shut down and prevent oil and gas production.” “So much for Joe Biden being able to transact with the Saudis,” Cramer said in a statement.
This article has been updated.