In Rare Rebuke To Trump, Senate Votes To Block Saudi Arms Sales

Jun 20, 2019

Amid rising tensions in the Middle East, the Senate voted to rein in President Trump's powers, passing three bipartisan resolutions on Thursday blocking the administration from selling billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Seven Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined all Democrats in voting for the measures blocking against sales to Saudi Arabia, each passing 53-45.

With 22 separate sales pending, the other 20 resolutions involved arms sales to other allies, including the United Arab Emirates. They were voted on en bloc, whereby four Republicans joined the Democrats in that 51-45 vote.

While sending a strong signal to the administration, all three Senate votes failed to get enough votes to override a pledged veto by the president.

The House must now pass a joint resolution of disapproval, which would then go to the president's desk. It is also not expected to pass a veto.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., introduced the measures, citing Saudi Arabia's role in the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been engaged in a multi-year campaign against Houthi rebels, often with disastrous consequences for the civilian population.

"If the Senate wants to show the world that, even if you are an ally you cannot kill with impunity, this is the moment," Menendez said on the Senate floor.

But the White House said the U.S. has taken "a number of actions to help the Saudi military mitigate the risk of civilian casualties in Yemen, including training and advising the Saudi military to help them improve their targeting processes to minimize civilian casualties."

In a statement, the White House said halting the arms sales "would send a message that the United States is abandoning its partners and allies at the very moment when threats to them are increasing."

"Saudi Arabia serves as a bulwark against the malign activities of Iran and its proxies," the White House said, adding that the resolutions would affect the ability of American partners "to deter and defend against Iran's hostile acts."

The administration has said it has the authority to carry out the sales because of an "emergency" in the Gulf, citing Iran's aggression in the region. The White House declared the emergency and approved the weapons sales May 24, the same day it announced the deployment of 1,500 troops to the Gulf region.

Following last year's grisly slaying of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate, Congress has called for holding Saudi Arabia accountable, even as the administration has affirmed U.S.-Saudi ties.

Sen. Rand Paul, who was among the handful of Republicans who voted to ban the weapons sales, referenced Khashoggi on the Senate floor Thursday, saying "there is high confidence that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia butchered a dissident with a bone saw ... You would think that would give us pause as to giving Saudi Arabia or selling Saudi Arabia more weapons."

"We don't sell weapons to Russia. We don't sell weapons to China because we have disagreements and we don't think it would be in our best interest to sell them weapons," said Paul, calling Saudi Arabia itself, "untrustworthy."

Also Thursday, the Court of Appeals in the United Kingdom ruled British arm sales to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemen War are unlawful.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said the government would suspend new sales while it looks into the implication of the ruling.

NPR's Mark Katkov and David Welna contributed to this report.

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