WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Thursday voted 77-21 to table Sen. Rand Paul’s effort to prevent a $300 million sale of rocket launchers to Bahrain — intended as a proxy vote on U.S. military aid to the Saudi side of Yemen’s civil war.
The action came hours after the U.S. Treasury Department added economic sanctions against 17 Saudis accused of taking part in the October killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi inside their country’s consulate in Istanbul — and days after the Trump administration halted refueling for Saudi-led bombing in Yemen.
The vote was bipartisan, with 48 Republicans, 28 Democrats and Maine Independent Sen. Angus King voting “yes.” Seventeen Democrats, three Republicans and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders voted “no.”
Paul’s attempt is one of several related proposals percolating in Congress. On Wednesday, House Republicans effectively shelved a resolution to invoke Congress’ war powers to end U.S. military involvement in Yemen without a vote.
“I would like to vote directly that we should not be at war in Yemen, not be involved with supplying refueling or bombs to the Saudis and the Bahrainis and their coalition,” Paul, R-Ky., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a floor speech — adding that such a vote is “forbidden.”
“I’m not asking that we end our alliance, I’m not asking that we sanction them,” Paul said. “I’m only saying, stop one sale of arms to send a message that we are done with the war in Yemen, that we are no longer going to sell weapons to countries that are fighting this war in Yemen, that the war must come to a close.”
While Bahrain is a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war, both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Sen Bob Corker, and its ranking member opposed Paul’s action, citing the strategic alliance in play.
Bahrain hosts U.S. Naval Support Activity Bahrain, which is home to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Corker, R-Tenn., said he asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to address his concerns about Saudi Arabia and Yemen — but the Bahrain sale, in Corker’s view, was not the right avenue.
“Bahrain certainly has had some issues with human rights, and we have dealt with those. It is a city-state in the Persian Gulf where we have 7,800 men and women in uniform who are protecting our interests there, who are a buffer against Iran," Corker said.
“For us to block sales to the country of Bahrain that is housing one of our most important naval bases over something that has nothing to do with them, but has something to do with another country, is not a pragmatic nor a sensible step,” he added.
In September, the State Department announced the potential sale of 120 Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System M31 Unitary Rocket Pods and 110 Army Tactical Missiles System M57 T2K Unitary missiles — along with associated training and contractor support. Lockheed Martin’s Missile and Fire Control division in Grand Prairie, Texas, was named the prime contractor.
Though Paul has called the weapons “offensive,” the U.S. government announcement said they would be used to secure Bahrain’s oil and natural gas infrastructure, strengthen homeland defense, and deter regional threats.
The Arms Export Control Act of 1976 provides the special procedures whereby a senator can force a vote on an arms sale, though such votes are rare.
In May, Human Rights Watch recommendedthe U.S. reject previously proposed arms sales to Bahrain for what it called Manama’s “dismal record on human rights and relentless persecution of dissidents.” However, the U.S. has approved several proposed sales since then.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.