WASHINGTON – Any senator can force a floor vote to block a U.S. foreign military sale. But when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., did just that last year in a failed bid to halt President Joe Biden’s $650 million sale of AIM-120 air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia, barely half of the Democratic caucus joined him.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was among the Democrats who sided with Biden and voted against Paul’s resolution, which failed 30-67. Now Blumenthal is taking the lead on one of numerous Democratic initiatives to curtail the U.S.-Saudi security partnership in the wake of OPEC’s decision to reduce oil output – a cut that has infuriated Biden and his allies in Congress.
The abrupt reversal comes after Biden himself vowed that Saudi Arabia would suffer “consequences” and the White House announced it would once again review U.S.-Saudi relations. Biden conducted a similar review shortly after taking office last year, ultimately allowing some arms sales to proceed despite his vow to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state while campaigning against former president Donald Trump.
Blumenthal hopes that his “sensible and reasonable” bill will nudge Biden to freeze all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and potentially prompt Riyadh to reconsider the oil cuts before they go into effect next month.
The bill would enact a one-year halt on all arms sales to Riyadh. This would include any support equipment, spare parts or other logistical and technical services that usually accompany any weapons.
“Saudi cannot proceed with this kind of mistake without there being some consequences,” Blumenthal said at a Capitol Hill press conference on Wednesday. “The Saudis’ actions aid and abet a murderous and brutal criminal invasion by Russia. They endanger the world economy. And they threaten higher gas prices for Americans.”
OPEC announced last week that it would reduce its petroleum output as Saudi Arabia and other member countries brace for a potential recession. The decision could have domestic ramifications for embattled Democrats in the midterm elections, as Republicans have hammered their opponents on rising gas prices.
The GOP has remained largely silent on the OPEC decision, raising questions as to whether Blumenthal can secure the 10 Republican votes he would need to pass his bill in the Senate. Notably, only one Republican – Mike Lee of Utah – joined Paul and 28 Senate Democrats in the failed 2021 vote to block the Saudi missile sale.
If he’s able to round up the Republican votes, Blumenthal said it’s “possible” that his bill could pass as either part of the National Defense Authorization Act – which the Senate is scheduled to vote on in November – or the omnibus spending bill to fund the government for Fiscal 2023.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., told Defense News on Tuesday that he did not anticipate any Saudi-related floor votes in the NDAA, simply because he had not seen his fellow senators introduce any such provisions amid the approximately 900 proposed amendments that they filed prior to the OPEC oil cuts.
Still, Reed – who voted with Blumenthal in favor of Biden’s Saudi missile sale last year – said that the U.S. “should look carefully at everything we’re sending” the Saudis “because their inability to cooperate with the West and their willingness to cooperate with Russia is very disturbing.”
The House NDAA, which passed 329-101 in July, already contains an amendment that would limit future offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia until Riyadh stops targeting its dissidents in the kingdom and abroad – though that legislation would allow Biden to issue a national security waiver allowing the weapons deals to proceed. The amendment’s author – Democrat Gerry Connolly of Virginia – agreed to add the national security waiver in order to gain GOP support on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Offensive or Defensive?
Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., announced on Monday that he would use his position as Foreign Relations Committee chairman to block future arms sales to Riyadh “beyond what is absolutely necessary to defend U.S. personnel and interests.” Menendez also voted in favor of Biden’s AIM-120 air-to-air missile sale to Riyadh in December.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., followed suit on Tuesday and said on Twitter that he will “not be approving further assistance or arms sales to Saudi Arabia beyond the support of existing defensive systems until the kingdom reverses its position.”
Biden’s initial review of U.S.-Saudi relations last year resulted in a murky delineation between offensive arms sales to the Saudis – which the State Department froze – and defensive weapons, which Washington continued to sell. This entailed freezing multiple Saudi arms sales approved under Trump, including a $290 million deal in 2020 for 3,000 precision guided missiles as well as a 2019 sale worth $8.1 billion in in precision guided munitions and aircraft support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress successfully banded together to pass a resolution blocking Trump’s 2019 sale, largely in response to the Saudi-led coalition’s aerial campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels – which has killed nearly 9,000 civilians to date – and the kingdom’s 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But lawmakers failed to muster the votes needed to override Trump’s veto.
Congress has displayed much less overall interest in keeping U.S. weapons out of Saudi hands under Biden – at least until last week’s OPEC decision. Three of Biden’s four arms sales to Saudi Arabia have proceeded without a senator forcing a vote to block it.
The AIM-120 sale aside, Congress took no action to oppose another 2021 sale worth $500 million to cover the maintenance of eight CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters that have yet to arrive in Saudi Arabia after a 2018 purchase. A $23.7 million Saudi sale for low volume terminals for a Multifunctional Information Distribution System also slid through the congressional review period unimpeded.
The Biden administration considered resuming offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia amid the president’s trip to Jeddah to meet the kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Reuters reported in July. The visit itself marked a concession to Riyadh after Biden initially refused to meet with Prince Mohammed for more than a year because of his orders to kill Khashoggi.
A White House fact sheet from Biden’s visit noted that Saudi Arabia had committed to increase production levels 50% above what the kingdom had planned for July and August. Shortly thereafter, the State Department in August approved a $3 billion Patriot missile defense system to Saudi Arabia in August – with no congressional protest.
“What galls many of us in Congress is the ingratitude,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said at the press conference alongside Blumenthal. “When Americans are facing a crisis because of [Russian President Vladimir Putin], when we’re paying more at the pump, our ally – someone who we have helped for decades – should be trying to help the American people. Instead, they’re hurting the American people.”
Khanna plans to introduce the same legislation as Blumenthal in the House. He noted that Saudi Arabia procures 73% of its weapons from the U.S. and that the American military is “responsible for their entire Air Force.”
“If it weren’t for our technicians, their airplanes literally wouldn’t fly,” said Khanna. “They have Pakistani and some other mechanics, but they’re under American supervision.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Zamone “Z” Perez is a rapid response reporter and podcast producer at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.