WASHINGTON — The top Democrat on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee said he will not back a proposal to block a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia over its war with Yemen.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., acknowledged the concerns fueling the measure: That Saudi Arabia's conduct of the war is contributing to the humanitarian crisis and that its ally is not more engaged in regional problems, but that's as far as it went.
"They're trying to make a point with an arms sale that's not relevant to those concerns," Cardin said of the sponsors on Thursday. "At this point, I don't think it's helpful to countermand the president."
Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Rand Paul, R-Ky., Al Franken, D-Minn., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced a joint resolution to halt the sale of Abrams tanks, heavy vehicles, weapons and ammunition.
The State Department approved the sale and, in August, the Pentagon notified Congress. Saudi Arabia requested as many as 153 tanks, 20 described by the Pentagon as replacements for vehicles damaged in the war in Yemen.
Paul said in a statement that the sale was "a recipe for disaster and an escalation of an ongoing arms race in the region."
The senators invoked the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, which allows a senator to force a vote on an arms sale by the president. The legislation allows for a privileged vote within ten days of its posting, Paul said, who said the sponsors will ask for a vote this coming Monday.
"We will get a vote, and we should have a vote on whether we're at war with Yemen," Paul said. "We're refueling planes that are bombing Yemen. We should have a vote on it."
The lawmakers, whose measure follows a letter from 64 House lawmakers urging US President Barack Obama to delay the sale, cited the human rights concerns, among others.
Saudi Arabia has been carrying out airstrikes in its war with the Iranian-allied Houthi movement in Yemen since March 2015. United Nations officials estimate the majority of the 3,000 civilian casualties in the war resulted from Saudi coalition strikes.
Saudi-led airstrikes on a water well in Yemen on Saturday killed 30 people and wounded 17 others, including first responders and two children, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, said in a statement Monday.
McGoldrick said he was "deeply disturbed by the unrelenting attacks on civilians and on civilian infrastructure throughout Yemen by all parties to the conflict." He called on both sides to resume a cease-fire agreed to April 10.
Since taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration has offered over $115 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia in 42 separate deals, more than any US administration in the 71-year history of the US-Saudi relationship, according to a report by the Center for International Policy's William Hartung. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and General Dynamics are the biggest beneficiaries of these deals.
On Capitol Hill, Cardin acknowledged the sponsors of the resolution have "legitimate" human rights concerns, and that the debate might yield a path for Congress to address them.
"There are probably a large number of senators who agree with their concerns, including this senator; I just think the method they're trying to use isn't the right method," Cardin said.
Speaking with a small group of reporters on Thursday, Murphy expressed doubt that the measure would pass. "I don't know that we have 50 votes," he said — but he offered that recent high-profile Saudi attacks on hospitals and schools have fueled momentum for Congress to respond.
"In the wake of continued civilian deaths, the fact is that the Saudis are unable to clean up their act," Murphy said. "There's much more willingness to take a look at pausing arms sales."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.