WASHINGTON — The US Senate scuttled a measure to block the $1.15 billion sale of US tanks to Saudi Arabia, though a Hill fight is looming over another measure the kingdom dislikes.
The rare joint resolution to disapprove of the sale was tabled on Wednesday, 71 to 27, but the vote signals concerns from lawmakers over Saudi Arabia's Yemen campaign and suspicions over the US ally's role in sponsoring hard-line Islam. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., afterward cast the vote as successfully sending a message to the Riyadh and the Obama administration that there is growing displeasure in Congress over the war's civilian casualties.
"The very fact that we are voting on it today sends a very important message to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that we are watching your actions closely, and that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children," said co-sponsor Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
The sponsors invoked the 1976 Arms Export Control Act to force the floor vote, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., led the Republican drive to table it.
The US has been providing logistics and intelligence aid in the Saudis' 18-month campaign in Yemen against Houthi rebels, said to be allied with Iran. The conflict has claimed 3,700 civilians, according to United Nations data, and the vote came a month after a Saudi airstrike that killed 10 children.
The Pentagon on Aug. 9 posted the pending sale of 153 M1A1/A2 tanks, including 20 replacements for vehicles damaged in battle, and other armored vehicles, night vision equipment, weapons and ammunition.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, opponents of the arms sale made a series of arguments: that US aid in the campaign skirts Congress's duty to declare war, that it makes the US culpable for civilian casualties and that it creates an opening in Yemen for local al-Qaida affiliates to thrive. They also criticized Saudi Arabia's export of Wahhabism as a building block for terror.
"If we really want to cut off extremism at its source, then we can't keep closing our eyes to the money that flows out of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states into this conservative Salafist missionary movement around the world," Murphy said.
Paul, in a floor speech, described Saudi Arabia as a "frenemy," with a checkered human rights record. "I don't believe that Saudi Arabia is a ally that we can trust," he said.
A powerful group of Republicans countered in a series of floor speeches that blocking the sale would weaken an alliance shaken by the US nuclear deal with Iran and upset the regional balance of power. McConnell was joined by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas; Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.; Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the foreign affairs budget.
Some of those lawmakers acknowledged their own discomfort with the kingdom. Graham said Saudi Arabia has "real" internal problems and "double-dealing in the past of helping terrorist organizations." Yet it deserves aid because it has shared life-saving intelligence and, he said, because it is a hedge on Iran and "all-in against" the Islamic State.
"The bad guys and our allies in the Arab world are imperfect, but they are still our allies," Graham said. "[The resolution's passage would] send a signal to the radical regime in Tehran that we're going to roll back supporting our allies, and do nothing about [it's] provocative behavior, which would be a mistake for the ages."
There has been a growing call within the US for a reassessment of relations amid the kingdom's Yemen campaign and the diplomatic fallout from it's January 2016 execution of a Shia cleric and dozens of al-Qaida members, according to an April Congressional Research Service report.
Still Saudi Arabia remains a key strategic ally in the region and has been offered $115 billion in weapons since President Obama took office, according to a Center for International Policy report. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and General Dynamics are the biggest beneficiaries of these deals.
Corker, on the Senate floor Wednesday, argued the kingdom maintains the Mideast power balance and is "willing to buy US-made equipment that helps [sustain] the infrastructure necessary for us over time to protect our country," Corker said.
The defense industry took a direct hit from Paul, who said, "I don't think of national security as a jobs program."
"I don't think of whether we create jobs here at home, I think about the young man who lives down the road from me who lost both legs and an arm, OK," he said. "I think about the human toll of war."
"If we make weapons and we have a weapons industry, that's good for our country—when we make them for ourselves," Paul said. "But when we're selling weapons around the world, by golly, we shouldn't sell weapons to people who are not putting them to good purpose."
Last month, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., led a bipartisan group of 64 lawmakers in a letter urging Obama to postpone the sale, citing concerns over Saudi-led coalition's killing of civilians. It was the latest in a series of letters from Leiu, who introduced a House bill Tuesday with Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., to parallel the Senate resolution.
On Wednesday, a showdown loomed between Congress and President Obama over legislation that would enable the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to use the US courts to seek compensation from states whose nationals are involved in the attacks. The bill is called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
Left to right: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Center for the National Interest Vice Chairman Dov Zakheim and Sen. Chris Murphy, D- Conn., discuss legislation to halt the sale of some weapons to Saudi Arabia at the center on Sept. 19, 2016, in Washington.
Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Last week, Saudi officials said JASTA violates principals of international law and the principle of sovereign equality established under the United Nations charter.
The White House has warned that it would veto the legislation, though lawmakers of both parties support the bill and were rallying to muster an veto override. Obama has until Friday to wield the veto.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Paul noted the apparent irony.
"This body voted unanimously to let the 9/11 victims sue [Saudi Arabia], and now this body wants to give them weapons?" Paul said.
Cornyn, one of the chief proponents of JASTA and opponents of blocking the arms deal, argued the two positions are not in conflict.
"It is very much in the United States interest that Iran not continue to dominate the Middle East," Cornyn said. "When our interests are aligned with countries like Saudi Arabia, we will stand with them, and we hope they would stand with us. When they diverge, we're going to take a little different approach."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.