Senate rejects attempt to block Trump’s UAE arms sale

The Senate on Wednesday rejected a bipartisan effort to block President Trump’s $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates. 

Senators voted on two resolutions to block the arms sale, with both failing to get the simple majority to advance over the initial procedural hurdles in 46-50 and 47-49 votes, respectively. 

The administration notified Congress last month that it approved selling the UAE up to 50 F-35s worth $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B drones worth $2.97 billion, and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions worth $10 billion. 

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced resolutions to block the sale. Because arms sale resolutions are privileged, the three senators were able to force the votes on their resolutions even though GOP leadership opposed them. They needed only a simple majority to pass. 

Senators on both sides of the fight acknowledged on Wednesday before the votes that it would be a tight margin.

“It’s going to be a close vote,” Murphy said.

Echoing that, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who voted against the resolutions, also said he thought it would be “close” and that there was a “universe” of Republicans who might vote yes. 

“There’s people who are kind of, I would say, not fully decided yet,” Thune said only hours ahead of the votes.

Arms sale votes have emerged as a point of contention during the Trump administration.

In 2019, Congress voted to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE amid outrage over the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But there was not enough support to override Trump’s vetoes. Seven Republicans voted for all or part of the resolutions blocking the arms sale at the time.

Lawmakers have expressed concerns that the sale to the UAE could result in U.S. technology being given to adversaries such as China or erode Israel’s military advantage in the region. The U.S. commitment to Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge is enshrined in a 2008 law.

“Simply put, many aspects of this proposed sale remain conceptual. We are being asked to support a significant transfer of advanced U.S. technology without clarity on a number of key details regarding the sale or sufficient answers to critical national security questions,” Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said ahead of the vote. 

“There are simply too many outstanding questions about the protection of critical U.S. military technology, the broader implications of these sales to U.S. national security regarding the UAE’s relationships, for example, with Russia and China as they exist today,” he added. 

Democrats also accused the Trump administration of rushing through the sale on their way out of office. Though the incoming Biden administration could still make changes, lawmakers have expressed concerns that they will be boxed in on some aspects.

But several Republicans who have supported efforts to block previous arms sales stuck with the administration on the UAE votes. Paul was the only Republican to support the resolutions to block the arms sale. 

Members of leadership also urged senators to vote against the resolutions ahead of Wednesday’s vote. 

“It’s a little baffling to suggest that, now of all times, a protest gesture with no chance of obtaining a veto-proof majority is a valuable use of the Senate’s time. But above and beyond that, the strategic realities dictate that Congress should not stand in the way of this sale,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

The administration provided briefings to groups of members ahead of the votes, but, unlike previous arms sale votes, the Senate didn’t have an all-members briefing, which would involve gathering senators together amid a global health pandemic. 

Murphy questioned how familiar his colleagues were on the details ahead of the vote. 

“I worry that they’re not very well read-in,” he said. “It was clearly the strategy of the administration to give as little information as possible. I think if everybody in the Senate got the briefing that we got in the Foreign Relations Committee, there’s no way these resolutions would fail,” he said. 

Tags arms sales Chris Murphy Donald Trump Israel John Thune Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Robert Menendez Saudi Arabia UAE Yemen

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