WASHINGTON ― The U.S. Senate on Monday failed to muster the 67 votes needed to override President Donald Trump’s vetoes of three congressional resolutions meant to block his administration from bypassing Congress to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Senate voted three times ― 45-40, 45-39 and 46-41 ― to override the vetoes after the administration and some Senate Republicans cited Saudi Arabia’s status as bulwark against Iran’s influence in the Mideast to support the sales. The resolutions, connected to a proposed $8.1 billion U.S. sale set to include precision-guided bombs and related components, were meant to reassert Congress’s oversight role.
Last month, the White House argued against the resolutions, saying the sales improve the security of two friendly countries. “Apart from negatively affecting our bilateral relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the joint resolution would hamper our ability to sustain and shape critical security cooperation activities and would significantly hinder the interoperability between our nations,” the White House said in a statement then.
Trump, who issued the veto on July 24, has also argued that the resolutions would impact the global supply chain ― specifically allies United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, France, Spain and Italy, which have co-production licensing agreements for some of the systems.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez, had led the bipartisan effort against the sales, channeling frustration on Capitol Hill over civilian casualties in the U.S.-backed and Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen as well as the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Ahead of the vote Monday, Menendez, D-N.J., said the U.S.-Saudi co-production agreements in the larger deal would transfer jobs and sensitive military technology to Saudi Arabia. With the sale, the U.S. would green light plans by Raytheon to shift manufacturing of a part of the guidance system for the PGMs to the Saudis.
Calling the deal “a Saudi jobs program,” and “madness,” Menendez said State Department officials have indicated privately that this would the first in a series, allowing the Saudis to manufacture larger, more sensitive portions of the weapons. He argued the work, “should be done by American workers in the United States.”
“I ask my colleagues who are thinking of allowing this veto to stand, do you want to be on record supporting a Saudi jobs program, do you want to be on record aiding and abetting the transfer of sensitive U.S. military technology to Saudi Arabia, a source of extremism and bloodshed in the world?” Menendez said.
Otherwise, Menendez laid out a case for why the Riyadh’s activities of recent months are against America’s interests and values, and that the Trump administration has jeopardized “America’s moral leadership on the world stage” by favoring Riyadh.
The vote on Capitol Hill came the same day as an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition hit a busy market in rebel-held northern Yemen, killing at least 10 civilians, including children. Yemeni officials and the rebels’ health ministry also said Monday that the attack wounded 27 people.
The administration has seen pushback from both sides of the aisle since U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in May, cited an increased threat from Iran to declare an emergency and waive the congressional review process for those sales. The move upended the practice of congressional holds and raised concerns a future administration might similarly bypass Congress.
Monday’s vote, however, garnered less support than the original Senate votes. In the Senate, the original votes on the three resolutions June 20 were 53-45 for the first two and 51-45 for the last. In the House July 17, the votes were 238-190 for two and 237-190 for the last. (House Democrats had no defectors, but four House Republicans and one Independent crossed party lines each time to vote yes.)
Four lead defense primes ― Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics ― were involved in the majority of arms offers notified to Congress from fiscal 2009 through May 2019, according to a report Monday from the Center for International Policy, a nonprofit think tank. Of the overall $8.1 billion, $4.3 billion would be for equipment from these four firms.
Those deals include $1.6 billion for the sale and coproduction of Raytheon Paveway bombs and two separate deals totaling $2.6 billion for maintenance and training related to Saudi-owned systems like the Boeing F-15 combat aircraft and the Lockheed Martin C-130 transport plane.
The report, from CIP’s Cassandra Stimpson and William Hartung, highlights the use of weapons from Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics, in attacks that killed civilians.
“The U.S. military has attempted to address concerns regarding civilian casualties through training of Saudi troops and the transfer of precision-guided bombs,” they write. “However, confidence that more precise targeting will lead to lower civilian casualties assumes that civilians are not being purposefully targeted – a claim increasingly difficult to substantiate.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.