Senate

Senate rejects effort to block Saudi arms sale

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The Senate on Tuesday narrowly rejected an effort to block part of President Trump’s $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.  

Senators voted 47-53 on advancing the resolution, falling short of the simple majority needed to move forward. GOP Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.) Todd Young (Ind.) and Dean Heller (Nev.) voted with most Democrats to advance it.

Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Mark Warner (Va.) voted against moving the measure.

The motion faced an uphill climb in the Senate, despite growing concerns about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war. 

{mosads}Top Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), signaled ahead of the vote that they were opposed to the motion, arguing that reneging on the arms agreement would undercut a key U.S. ally. 

“As we know, some have raised the issue of Saudi conduct of that war [in Yemen], but blocking this arms sale will diminish Saudi capability to target with precision. … Part of the training provided to Saudi Arabia will be on subjects such as avoiding civilian casualties,” McConnell said. 

He added that Saudi Arabia is involved in “two important struggles”: fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and countering Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Blocking the deal, McConnell said, would send the wrong signal. 

Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairmen of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively, also opposed blocking the deal, saying they had urged Saudi Arabia to improve its ability to avoid civilian casualties with its airstrikes. 

“It’s hard for me to understand why people would oppose the selling of precision guided missiles,” Corker told reporters, stressing they help lower unintended casualties.

McCain said blocking the deal would be “crazy.” 

“I’ve been putting pressure on them for years and years and years, and they have made some improvements. … They’ve got a long way to go,” he told reporters in a recent interview. 

But supporters of the motion argued that the vote was needed, even if it failed, to send a sign of growing frustration with Saudi Arabia. 

“Saudi Arabia is causing a humanitarian crisis with a war in Yemen. It funds extremism worldwide. Abuses human rights. Stop arming them now,” Paul tweeted on Tuesday. 

The Kentucky Republican also spoke from the Senate floor next to a poster of a child he said died in Yemen’s civil war.  

The Guardian reported last year that one-third of Saudi bombings hit civilian sites in Yemen, though the Saudi government disputed the claim as “vastly exaggerated.” 

Paul and Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) are using a frequently overlooked provision in the Arms Export Control Act that allows them to force a vote if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee doesn’t take up their motion within 10 days. 

The senators want to block the proposed sale of equipment and weapons systems used by the Royal Saudi Air Force, according to their motion. Murphy previously told reporters that it would account for roughly $500 million of the entire $110 billion sale. 

Murphy predicted ahead of the vote on the motion that it would be “very close” but sounded skeptical that they would be able to block the sale. 

“We’re going to get a handful of Republican votes and we’re working on the last few Democrats,” Murphy said. 

Both Murphy and Paul pledged after Tuesday’s vote to continue speaking out on Saudi Arabia, with Murphy warning that, without changes, “the votes will continue to head in the way they have since the fall.”

“I think Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with the military escalation that both President Obama and President Trump have pursued within the Middle East,” Murphy told reporters during a conference call.

But Paul declined to say if he and Murphy would try to block other parts of the arms sale, or other arms sales, noting they needed to talk and see if conditions within Yemen changed.

“I think also there needs to be a period of time to see if there is a change in Saudi warfare tactics,” Paul told reporters during the call.

A previous attempt to block an arms sale last year fell short, garnering only 27 votes.

Supporters of the motion picked up new backers on their latest effort, including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who announced this week he would support blocking part of the deal. 

“The human rights and humanitarian concerns have been well documented and are important: of equal concern to me is that the Saudi government continues to aid and abet terrorism via its relationship with Wahhabism and the funding of schools that spread extremist propaganda throughout the world,” Schumer said in a statement.

This report was updated at 3:37 p.m.

Tags Al Franken Bill Nelson Bob Corker Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Claire McCaskill Dean Heller Joe Donnelly Joe Manchin John McCain Mark Warner Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Todd Young
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