WASHINGTON — The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has committed to vote against a U.S.-Saudi deal for precision-guided munitions, a signal Democrats could oppose the deal en masse.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said Wednesday he would vote to block the sale of $510 million in smart bombs to be used in the war in Yemen because the Trump administration has not yet articulated a strategy to end the war through political means.
"Instead, this administration's approach appears to be more weapons sales," Cardin said in a measured statement Wednesday that expressed some support for Riyadh. "The administration's decision to proceed with the sale of precision-guided munitions, absent leadership to push all parties toward a political process for a negotiated settlement, including Saudi Arabia, sends the absolutely wrong signal to our partners and our adversaries."
Cardin's statement came after Senate Democrats discussed the issue in a weekly party meeting Tuesday.
The latest measure was introduced by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Al Franken, D-Minn., in late May as a rebuke against the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen's two-year-old civil war, and U.S. military support for it without congressional approval. According to the United Nations, more than 7,600 people have been killed in the war, and the country is on the brink of famine.
The vote could come as soon as Thursday, when the big news is expected to be former FBI Director's James Comey testifying before the Senate on his interactions with President Trump over Russian meddling in U.S. elections.
"I know Comey hearing is the thing, but don't sleep on a possible Senate vote tomor[row] on Saudi arms sale," Murphy said in a tweet on Wednesday evening. "I'm hustling for votes as we speak..."
Under the Arms Export Control Act, any senator can file a discharge petition to force a full debate and vote on an arms sale. In this case, the vote targets an arms sale the Obama administration had blocked in December because of concerns over Saudi-caused civilian casualties.
The resolution would halt three planned deals. It targets packages of Joint Direct Attack Munitions that would be deployed from the Royal Saudi Air Force's western-made F-15 fighter aircraft; Paveway laser-guided bombs for Saudi Tornado and Typhoon aircraft, and the integration of the Kaman FMU-152A/B Joint Programmable Fuze into the MK-80, BLU-109, and BLU-100 munitions.
Earlier this week, the State Department announced it OK'd a $750 million blanket order for training for Saudi Arabia that includes subjects such as civilian casualty avoidance, the law of armed conflict, human rights command and control. This deal is not included in the resolution.
On Tuesday, Paul said he has gotten little traction with Republicans to block the arms deal and was not sure it would win the simple majority it would need to pass. The best hope was to send a message asserting Congress's war-making authority.
"Whichever way it turns out, I think it's an important issue because it's a proxy debate for should we be at war in Yemen — which we are in, in a way, already," Paul said. "That should be voted on in Congress and shouldn't be glossed over. When the Obama administration finally pulled back, I think they were influenced by our debate [in the Senate]."
Aside from exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, the sale would ratchet up an arms race with Iran, Paul said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., dismissed the vote as "crazy."
"I think we need the Saudis right now, and I've put pressure on them for years and years and years, and they've made some improvements — but they have a long way to go," McCain said. "They're not a democracy, they're not the United States of America."
Amid a diplomatic crisis between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the country's Arabian Gulf neighbors, Trump surprisingly appeared to take credit for the break in a string of tweets this week — before inviting the leader of Qatar to the White House to help find a resolution.
The White House has also been on the defensive over an announced $110 billion arms sale to Riyadh that may be less than advertised. The State Department has to sign off on much of the sales, and about $24 billion were discussed with the Obama administration and were well underway.
There are several reasons for Democrats to oppose the Saudi deal, said one Democratic aide. The vote could serve to show Congresss's concern for the humanitarian crisis amid the administration's apparent ambivalence on humanitarian issues in the Middle East.
"We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship," Trump said at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh last month. "Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all."
Democrats have been vocal on this issue before. Murphy, Paul, Franken and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., introduced a bill in April to suspend certain air-to-ground munition deliveries until the U.S. president certifies that the Saudis show a commitment to fighting terrorism, facilitating the flow of humanitarian and commercial goods, and to protecting civilians in Yemen. A similar resolution was introduced in the House on May 25 with six co-sponsors.
In September, the Senate scuttled a measure brought by Paul, Murphy, Franken and Mike Lee, R-Utah, to halt a sale to Riyadh of Abrams tanks, heavy vehicles, weapons and ammunition worth $1.15 billion. The vote was 71-27, with four Republicans in the minority and more than 20 Democrats — including Cardin — voting with the majority.
But Murphy said lawmakers then had "legitimate concerns" the tank sale was not directly connected to the Yemen war, while this munition sale's clear connection and history of disapproval by the Obama administration should earn it more opposition.
"I think this vote will be very different," Murphy said Tuesday.
As of Wednesday afternoon, some Democrats were still undecided. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said of the munitions sale: "I'm looking at it. I think Senator Murphy and Senator Paul are making some important points."
It was unclear whether the vote would be a bellwether for future congressional action on arms sales linked to humanitarian and human rights concerns. The Trump administration told Congress in March it would approve a multi-billion-dollar sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without the human rights conditions imposed by the U.S. State Department under President Obama.
"I think both parties have always seen arms sales as a means to extract human rights concessions from Middle Eastern governments, and the lack of human rights conditions on this arms sale is worrying to both Republicans and Democrats," Murphy said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.