WASHINGTON ― The Senate passed 22 measures aimed at blocking White House plans for $8.1 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ― setting up a veto showdown with President Donald Trump.
The disapproval resolutions passed in three votes with a handful of Republicans joining Democrats to pass each measure and no Democratic defectors ― 53-45 for the first two votes and 51-45 for the final vote. The simple majority votes suggest the measures are vulnerable to the White House’s veto.
The White House issued a veto threat ahead of the vote that argued Saudi Arabia serves as a bulwark against Iran and its proxies in the region, but also that halting the sales would trigger “unintended consequences” for allies beyond the Middle East. The Trump administration cited an impact on the global supply chain ― specifically allies South Korea, India, Jordan and others with co-production licensing.
“[M]uch of the transatlantic defense industry is highly integrated and reliant on United States components and intellectual property — cooperation that ensures interoperability, which in turn makes NATO stronger,” the veto threat reads. “The proposed joint resolutions would threaten the reliability of the United States as a partner in defense [research and development], as a supplier of defense equipment, and as a stalwart for ensuring NATO interoperability.”
The range of sales involves Paveway precision-guided munitions and F110 engines for F-15 jets for Saudi Arabia; Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System laser-guided rockets and Patriot missiles for the UAE; and Paveway II precision-guided munitions for Jordan. Details of the sales were published in the Congressional Record.
Thurday’s action was led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez, D-N.J. “We must both assert our role in upholding the rule of law at home and use our position to ensure that when our government seeks to sell weapons, those sales advance our national security interests and our values,” he said.
The unprecedented move reflects growing concerns from Democratic and Republican members of Congress over civilian casualties in the Saudi air campaign in Yemen and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged involvement in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Arguing an increased threat from Iran, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared an emergency on May 24 to waive the congressional review process for those sales. That further angered lawmakers because it upset the practice of congressional holds and raised concerns a future administration might similarly bypass Congress.
Ahead of the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave a floor speech expressing his own misgivings with Saudi Arabia, “an imperfect partner,” but strongly opposed the resolutions as, “an overly blunt tool” and ill-timed. He was one of several critics, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Senate Armed Services AirLand Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
“Let’s not cut ourselves off from our partners," McConnell said. “Let’s not undercut the administration at a time of such delicate diplomacy and tension with Iran.”
Amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington over the collapsing nuclear deal with world powers, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. drone on Thursday, according to both sides. U.S. Central Command said the RQ-4A Global Hawk maritime surveillance drone was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile, “an unprovoked attack,” while in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz.
The incident prompted Trump to warn in tweet that Iran “made a very big mistake.”
The resolutions’ Republican co-sponsors include South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham ― an ally of the president and chairman of the panel that oversees State Department funding ― and Sens. Rand Paul and Todd Young. The other co-sponsors were Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and the top Democrats on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed, and the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Graham, previously a defender of Saudi Arabia, said the relationship has been forever changed by Khashoggi’s death and other human rights violations ― which Graham called disrespectful to Trump and the strategic partnership with the U.S. The Yemen war, Graham said, is “out of control.”
“The reason I’m voting with Sen. Paul and others today is to send a signal to Saudi Arabia that if you act the way you’re acting, there is no space for a strategic relationship,” Graham said.
“There is no amount of oil you can produce that will get me and others to give you a pass on chopping somebody up in a consulate. Did M.B.S. do it? Yes. Not because the U.N. said so but because our intelligence and my common sense lead me to believe there is no viable alternative,” he added, using an acronym for the Saudi crown prince.
The 1976 Arms Export Control Act provides the special procedures whereby lawmakers can introduce a privileged joint resolution of disapproval against a proposed arm sale. In the Senate, a resolution can be discharged from the committee of jurisdiction, forcing a vote on the Senate floor.
McConnell and Menendez struck a deal to have two of the 22 resolutions debated and receive separate votes while the others would be voted on as a package. The arrangement was to prevent the large number of resolutions from tying up Senate business for weeks.
Separately, the Democratic-controlled House passed a $1 trillion spending package Thursday that contained an amendment to block funding for Trump’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. That measure passed with a bipartisan vote, 237-191.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., this week ripped the administration’s means of advancing them and its stance toward Iran. The U.S. has sped an aircraft carrier to the Mideast and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already in the region, while the Houthi rebels from Yemen have launched bomb-laden drones into neighboring Saudi Arabia.
“The administration’s most recent steps seem to be pushing us more toward confrontation than negotiation,” Engel said.
“The carrier group, rushing through the arms sale to Saudi Arabia ... coming up with a phony emergency to circumvent Congress and get these missiles to Saudi Arabia, putting more boots on the ground for supposedly defensive reasons — all framed by increasingly belligerent rhetoric. It does bother me because we should be trying to prevent confrontation.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.