Senators Plan Bipartisan Bid to Block ‘Emergency’ Arms Sales to Saudis, Emiratis

By Patrick Goodenough | June 6, 2019 | 4:19am EDT
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, right, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of the UAE’s Abu Dhabi, at a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Mecca in May 2019. (Photo: Saudi Press Agency)

( – President Trump’s plan to sell $8.1 billion worth of arms to Arab allies without congressional review faced a new challenge Wednesday when a group of senators – including a generally consistent ally of the president – announced they will introduce multiple joint resolutions in a bid to block the sales.

Citing the Iranian threat and invoking an “emergency” provision in the law governing arms sales, the administration last month said was moving ahead with 22 military deals with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the time the deals would “directly protect U.S. citizens and our partners,” contending that previous congressional delays “have called into doubt our reliability as a provider of defense capabilities, opening opportunities for U.S. adversaries to exploit.”

Items proposed for sale include munitions, such as Javelin guided missiles and precision-guided rocket systems, Blackjack UAVs, aircraft support and services, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment.

The U.S. Congress customarily reviews major arms sales, and the plan dismayed lawmakers, in part due to criticism of the Saudis over the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi; and of Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the war in Yemen. (Jordan is viewed as a less controversial ally.)

Now some of them are hoping to stop the deals from going ahead.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is both a Trump ally and a vocal critic of the Saudi regime, joined Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in leading the initiative. It also has the support of GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Todd Young (Ind.), and Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy Conn.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Jack Reed (R.I.).

Menendez is the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Graham, Paul, Young and Murphy are all members.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is the committee of jurisdiction which under the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) can discharge a resolution of disapproval against a proposed arm sale, and force a vote on the Senate floor.

Graham expressed optimism that the plan to put forward 22 separate resolutions of disapproval – one for each of the announced deals – would garner “strong bipartisan support.”

“While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of [crown prince] Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored,” he said in a statement. “Now is not the time to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia.”

“I am also very concerned about the precedent these arms sales would set by having the administration go around legitimate concerns of the Congress,” Graham added.

Menendez said the action is being taken “to show that we will not stand idly by and allow the president or the secretary of state to further erode congressional review and oversight of arm sales.”

He said Pompeo should withdraw the emergency certification, submit the proposed sales for congressional review, and engage with senators to address concerns.

“Failing that, I am prepared to move forward with any and all options to nullify the licenses at issue for both Saudi Arabia and UAE and eliminate any ability for the administration to bypass Congress in future arms sales.”

Congress has clashed with the administration before over Saudi Arabia, and in April Trump vetoed a bipartisan resolution requiring the U.S. to end military support to the Saudi-led, four-year campaign against the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The war in Yemen has cost tens of thousands of civilian lives and given rise to a severe humanitarian crisis. Both Murphy and Paul cited those concerns Wednesday, while also alluding to the killing of Khashoggi.

“Selling more bombs to the Saudis simply means that the famine and cholera outbreak in Yemen will get worse, Iran will get stronger, and al-Qaeda and ISIS will continue to flourish amidst the chaos of the civil war,” said Murphy.

“For far too long, Saudi Arabia has acted with impunity,” said Paul. “Whether creating humanitarian disasters, spreading radical Islam, or making journalists disappear, their flagrant behavior around the world is simply unacceptable.”

Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October, and U.S. lawmakers continue to press for accountability for his death. The U.S. Senate in a unanimous resolution in December declared its belief that Mohammed bin Salman was “responsible for the murder” of the self-exiled Washington Post columnist, a critic of the crown prince.

The AECA enables lawmakers to introduce a joint resolution of disapproval against a proposed arms sale.

If a joint resolution disapproving of a planned sale is passed by both the House and Senate it goes to the president, who would presumably veto it.

Congress would then need to secure a two-thirds majority in both houses to override the veto.

In 1986 a joint resolution disapproving of plans to sell missile systems to the Saudis passed in the House (by a 356-62 vote) and Senate (by a 73-26 vote), but the Senate narrowly failed to override President Reagan’s veto.

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