Correction: This story has been corrected to add one vote to the opposing party, making the vote 53-47.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate narrowly voted 53-47 along largely partisan lines to approve a $510 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.
The sale’s supporters, largely Republican, said opponents — in seeking to score political points against U.S. President Donald Trump — would strengthen Iran’s hand. The vote was framed by critics of the sale as a rebuke of Saudi Arabia’s activities in the Yemen civil war.
Lawmakers voted down a joint resolution disapproving of the sale. Had it been successful, the vote would have been the first time in decades a congressional body voted to bar a weapons sale to Saudi Arabia. It would have also been a public setback to Trump weeks after he announced a $110 billion arms deal with Riyadh, a key part of his Middle East policy and first overseas trip as president.
“This is one of those things, you’re cutting your nose off to spite your face, and there are some, not all, who are using this to get a piece of the Trump administration’s hide,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a supporter of the sale, said ahead of the vote. “I would hope that we would rise above that and realize that Saudi Arabia, with their flaws, has been a reliable ally.
“There is no classified evidence that they purposely tried to kill civilians, and in fact we have the opposite, and they already own the bombs, and we’re helping them not kill civilians."
Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Al Franken, D-Minn., sponsored the resolution objecting to the sales because they say the bombs are being used in the Yemeni civil war to target civilians. Saudi officials have denied the charge.
Opponents of the sale also pointed to the mushrooming humanitarian crisis in Yemen, as the war is marked by cholera and famine. Paul cast the vote as a referendum on U.S. support for the Saudi air campaign and Congress' opportunity to assert its war-making responsibilities.
"Should the United States be actively involved with refueling the Saudi planes, with picking targets, with having advisers on the ground?" Paul said in a floor speech ahead of the vote. "Should we be at war in Yemen? If you remember your Constitution, it says no president has that authority; only to repel imminent attack, but no president alone has the unilateral authority to take us to war. And yet, here we are on the verge of war."
Opponents of the sale were buoyed by support from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. Both lawmakers had opposed a similar resolution Paul and Murphy offered last year.
In a Senate floor speech ahead of the vote, Schumer said that Riyadh’s support for Wahhabism, a strict Muslim sect that adheres closely to the Koran, is “responsible for much of the radicalization of Muslim youth in the Middle East in North Africa.”
“The White House has not clearly articulated how the U.S. will put pressure on Saudi Arabia to end their support of Wahhabi schools,” Schumer said. “Even as the president's visit was focused on curbing terrorism, the administration has not efficiently assured Congress that the weapons will not fall into the wrong hands.”
The $510 million sale of precision-guided munitions, or PGMs, is part of the $110 billion arms agreement Trump announced during his visit to Saudi Arabia last month. This portion of the sale senators are able to reject because the State Department officially notified Congress, triggering a 30-day window for congressional review.
Tuesday’s vote was much closer than the similar resolution last year. Five Democrats (Sens. Joe Donnelley, Joe Manchin, Claire McCaskill, Bill Nelson and Mark Warner) voted with the majority to support the sale. Four Republicans (Sens. Paul, Dean Heller, Mike Lee and Todd Young) voted with the minority to block it.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other defenders of the sale said it would boost the Saudi kingdom’s precision-targeting ability and include training to avoid civilian casualties. Given Saudi Arabia's aid to U.S. efforts to counter the Islamic State group, "now is not the time to undermine one of our critical allies in the Arab world by disapproving part of an arms sale package that will improve Saudi capabilities," he said.
Across the Capitol and ahead of the vote, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Joe Westphal, said the Obama administration had wrestled with how to provide offensive munitions while persuading Riyadh to reach an agreement with its foes: the Houthi rebels and ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The State Department, he said, was working with the Kingdom’s military to limit civilian casualties.
“Our efforts there ought to be to push hard. If you are going to receive these systems from us, these PGMs from us, we insist you work harder to train your forces on how to use them,” Westphal said at a hearing in a House Foreign Affairs hearing on Tuesday. “There’s a lot more we can do than sell them a weapons system without any constraints.”
Meanwhile, Democrats at the hearing took aim at the Trump administration’s handling of the split between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as the resulting diplomatic crisis.
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., called the president’s focus on security “a mistake” and a signal the administration is willing to forsake human rights when convenient. Deutch said he was “deeply troubled” by reports of civilian casualties in the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.
Of the proposed $110 billion sale, Deutch said lawmakers don’t know enough about its impact on Israel’s qualitative military edge. “Being an ally does not mean getting a blank check,” he said.