House to test Trump's veto pen on Saudi arms sales

House to test Trump's veto pen on Saudi arms sales
© Greg Nash

The House is poised to approve resolutions on Wednesday blocking President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE’s emergency arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies.

Clearing the Senate-passed measures would set up a showdown with Trump, who is expected to veto the resolutions.

It would be Trump’s third veto — and the second related to Saudi Arabia, underscoring the growing divide between Trump and Congress on Washington’s relationship with Riyadh.

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“There’s no reason to continue the arms sales to the Saudis, especially in light of the Khashoggi murder, and the total denial of accountability by the Saudis,” Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaKing incites furor with abortion, rape and incest remarks San Jose mayor proposes mandatory liability insurance for gun owners Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax MORE (D-Calif.) said Tuesday, referring to the death of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year.

In May, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoLatest pro-democracy rally draws tens of thousands in Hong Kong 63 killed in blast at Afghan wedding as Taliban, US negotiate troop withdrawal Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE invoked an emergency provision of the law governing arms sales to approve 22 deals with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan without the typical 30-day congressional review period.

The move infuriated lawmakers, who accused the Trump administration of attempting to bypass Congress. Lawmakers had been blocking the sales from moving forward because of concerns about civilian casualties caused by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war.

Congress has also been furious with Saudi Arabia over its killing of Khashoggi.

Earlier this year, Congress passed a resolution to cut off U.S. military support to the Saudi coalition in Yemen, propelled in large part by the anger over Khashoggi’s death. But Trump vetoed the resolution and the Senate, where the resolution originated, did not have the votes to override the veto.

The administration has argued that the arms sales are necessary because of what it calls heightened threats from Iran.

“Events since the secretary’s certification serve to further validate the urgent need for these sales,” R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of State for political military affairs, told a Senate committee last week, citing alleged Iranian attacks on oil tankers, the shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone and attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

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“These provocative actions mark a new evolution in the threat Iran poses to the region, to our partners, and to our own national security, including the security of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who live and work in the Gulf states,” he added.

Trump has resisted harsh punishment against Riyadh over the Khashoggi killing, arguing that curtailing the U.S.-Saudi relationship would leave American arms dealers in the lurch as the Saudis take their business elsewhere.

Congress, though, has been searching for a way to hold the Saudis accountable for Khashoggi’s murder.

In addition to targeting the arms sales, the House approved a bill this week that would require the director of national intelligence to determine who is responsible for Khashoggi’s death and impose visa restrictions on those people.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has advanced a bill to amend the Arms Export Control Act to prevent future emergency sales to the Saudis. The panel is expected to mark up a broader Saudi Arabia accountability bill in the coming weeks.

But the resolutions blocking the arms sales are the measures most likely to reach Trump’s desk.

The Senate voted 53-45 in June to block two of the emergency arms sales and 51-45 to block the other 20.

On Wednesday, the House is scheduled to vote on blocking three of the sales.

The resolutions being considered Wednesday cover Paveway precision-guided munitions for the Saudis and Emiratis. The deal with the Saudis also includes the co-production of the bombs, an aspect that has raised concerns among lawmakers who say it runs the risk of giving the Saudis access to sensitive technology to produce their own version of the bomb.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerLiberal Democrat eyes aid cuts to Israel after Omar, Tlaib denied entry Lawmakers blast Trump as Israel bars door to Tlaib and Omar Israel denies Omar and Tlaib entry after Trump tweet MORE (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday that the lower chamber chose to vote on three sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE most relevant to the Yemeni civil war. The House decided not to vote on the other 19 sales in the interest of time, he added.

“We’re not going to go through 22 bills with the time that it would take, if in fact the president’s simply going to veto, which we expect to happen,” Hoyer said.

The White House issued a veto threat ahead of the Senate’s vote on the resolutions, arguing that they would hinder “our partner’s ability to deter and defend against Iranian military aggression” and would “send a message that the United States is abandoning its partners and allies at the very moment when threats to them are increasing.”

Neither the House nor the Senate is expected to have the votes to override a veto.

But supporters say passing the resolutions will send a message to Riyadh nonetheless.

“It sends an incredible signal to the Saudis,” Khanna said. “One of the things countries that are smart about their relationship with the United States realize is that the Congress matters almost as much as the president. Presidents come and go every four to eight years. Congress is here, that has institutional knowledge. And the Saudis have really devastated their relationship with the Congress.”