House to vote on constraining US arms sales to Saudis on eve of Biden trip
Progressives are looking to constrain the Biden administration’s ability to send weapons and enter security agreements with Saudi Arabia as President Biden gears up for a controversial visit to strengthen ties with the country.
The Democratic lawmakers have introduced a number of amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) aiming to limit military support to the oil-rich monarchy, which is among the largest U.S. customers for foreign weapons sales.
The lawmakers proposing the measures say they are necessary to establish boundaries given Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war and broader human rights concerns.
They also point out the 2018 killing at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post .
“An American resident, a columnist for The Washington Post, and my constituent was — at the direction of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia — brutally murdered and dismembered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, a little over three years ago,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told The Hill.
“Justice is still waiting. And to me, that means you suspend normal relations with a country whose leader did that. And so I think we need some legislative guidance and direction circumscribing that relationship.”
Democrats filed a handful of amendments to the NDAA in the House Rules Committee for eventual floor consideration, though only two were allowed to be debated on the floor.
One amendment, sponsored by Connolly, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), would impose temporary limits on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and require reports and actions related to Khashoggi’s death.
The other amendment, led by Malinowski, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and five other Democrats, would require the secretary of State to develop guidance for investigating indications that U.S.-origin defense articles have been used in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition in “substantial violation of relevant agreements with countries participating in the coalition.”
The House is set to begin consideration of amendments to the defense bill on Wednesday, with votes expected later this week.
The U.S. has more than $126 billion in active foreign military sales with Saudi Arabia, according to the State Department.
Biden took a harder approach toward Saudi Arabia at the start of his administration. Last year, his administration released a declassified intelligence report saying that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally approved Khashoggi’s killing.
The president also ended support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen, but at the time said that the U.S. would continue defending Riyadh against attacks.
Reuters reported on Monday that the Biden administration was weighing possibly lifting the U.S. ban on sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia. Asked about the report, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan there’s “nothing on the table to lift the ban.”
“I’ve been pushing that we shouldn’t be giving them spare parts, that we shouldn’t be giving them any offensive weapons until they end the war in Yemen,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told The Hill.
“And that includes not just a cease-fire, but the lifting of the blockade and a permanent end to the war, and I appreciate that,” he continued.
Biden’s trip has come under scrutiny from critics, who see it as the president going back on his word to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state over Khashoggi’s killing.
In an op-ed for the Post, Biden said “we have to engage directly” with Saudi Arabia to ensure that the U.S. is “strong and secure.”
“I don’t think the president should be going back on his word and saying that he was going to make MBS a pariah,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) told the Hill, referring to the Saudi crown prince.
She said Biden is sending the wrong message to dictators and human rights violators.
“I think it’s disrespectful in a way to dissidents that are jailed and abused and persecuted,” she said.
Connolly similarly said that Biden shouldn’t have decided to go to Saudi Arabia, at least until there’s justice for Khashoggi’s death.
“I worked with Joe Biden for 10 years in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I believe in him, but I believe in this particular case he’s wrong,” he said. “He should not go to Saudi Arabia, and he certainly should not shake that bloody hand until justice has been done.”