Republican joins opposition to Saudi arms deal

Opposition to a massive military sale to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern allies from the United States picked up more steam Tuesday, when a Republican House member joined leading Democrats to block the deal in proposed legislation.

Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.) gathered with members of the Democratic leadership as well as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) at a Tuesday press conference to condemn the deal.

“Fundamentally, they have not been an ally of the United States,” said Weiner, referring to Saudi Arabia.

Weiner and others are hoping to attract more support for their position by reaching across the aisle.

“There is significant Republican concern,” said Ferguson, the lone GOP member of the group. The New Jersey Republican said that he has had several conversations with members from his own party, who are concerned but holding back for now.

Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington declined to comment.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is negotiating the sale of high-end military technology to several U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Egypt and Israel. Military aid to Saudi Arabia, which includes satellite-guided bombs and naval vessels, takes up a large portion of the deal.

Due to the size of the arms package, President Bush would have to notify Congress officially. Members then have 30 days to trigger a review of the deal and pass a joint resolution of disapproval if there is a majority willing to block the deal.  

Official notification for the deal will likely arrive on Capitol Hill in September. The members plan to submit their resolution as soon as notification arrives.

Weiner and others have questioned the wisdom of providing military support to Saudi Arabia, citing recent reports that 45 percent of the foreign fighters in Iraq are Saudis. Some charities in the kingdom have also been linked to the financing of terrorist attacks around the world.

While proponents of the sale say it would provide a stronger buffer against Iran, critical lawmakers say that Israel, a key U.S. ally, would end up being targeted instead by Saudi Arabia.

“All this military aid, you can’t use all these planes and tanks against internal subversion. Who are they supposed to be using this against?” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in an interview with The Hill.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has publicly supported the arms deal, but it has not received a “ringing endorsement,” in Weiner’s words.

Weiner also noted that Washington’s Israeli Embassy would not expand on Olmert’s statement when he called earlier that day.  

Both Nadler and Weiner cited Saudi Arabia’s heavy use of public relations consultants and lobby shops to project a better image of the country.

The kingdom is already well stocked with Washington advocates. Many of those were hired soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and have helped beat back legislation that could trouble the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

One example is Qorvis Communications, which has conducted extensive media campaigns and subcontracted out to the Gallagher Group to lobby on the issue.

Patton Boggs is also contracted with Saudi Arabia’s embassy. According to Justice Department records, lobbyists for the firm discussed with other lawmakers Saudi-related legislation offered by Weiner.

Weiner’s favored bill is the Saudi Arabia Accountability Act, which he has offered every year since 2003. The New York Democrat introduced the act again this year in early July and plans to keep pushing for the bill, which would sanction U.S. exports of arms to Saudi Arabia as well as restrict travel of the kingdom’s diplomats in America.

Meanwhile, one Washington ally that the Saudi government depended on for another controversial sale of military equipment in 1981 will not be available this time around. Fred Dutton, who passed away two years ago, was a long-time lawyer for the kingdom at his firm Dutton & Dutton.

Despite opposition from the Israeli government and a contentious Congress, Dutton, a former aide to several top Democratic politicians, helped smooth the deal through as it was pushed by the Reagan administration.

The firm, staffed by Dutton’s wife, Nancy, still has an active contract with the Saudi Embassy.

Nadler has promised to battle the current deal on the table.

“This is going to be an all-out fight. This is just beginning,” he said.