Sanders push to block arms sale to Israel doomed in Senate
An effort by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to block a $735 million arms sale to Israel appears doomed in the Senate.
Progressives are mounting a late effort to try to stop the sale amid the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which entered a cease-fire phase on Thursday evening.
But Sanders’s effort is shaping to be largely symbolic, and short-lived, as he faces multiple headaches that essentially guarantee his resolution won’t pass the Senate.
The main problem for Sanders is pretty straightforward: Absent some flip-flopping, he doesn’t have the votes.
Typically when lawmakers try to prevent an arms sale — something Congress has never accomplished through a joint resolution — they are able to force a vote, with passage requiring only a simple majority in the Senate by using the Arms Export Control Act to bypass the 60-vote filibuster.
That means Sanders would need 51 votes, or 50 votes and Vice President Harris to vote against the administration’s arms sale.
But with deep Democratic divisions over what tactics the administration should deploy against Israel, a long-time ally that typically enjoys bipartisan support, Sanders does not appear to have a path to the votes he needs.
Among those opposing the resolution is Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
“I wouldn’t be supporting it,” Menendez said.
Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), the second-ranking Democrat on the panel, also said he isn’t on board, adding that he doesn’t think there are 50 votes in the Senate to try to block the sale.
“I’m not supportive of his resolution,” Cardin said. “I have confidence that the Biden administration is handling it properly.”
Other Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee described themselves as undecided.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) — who has used the same provision of the Arms Export Control Act to try to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia — said he was waiting to get briefed before taking a position on the sale to Israel.
“We’re going to have to think about ways to make sure that Israel stays on a path to a Palestinian state. I think that future is much more in jeopardy after the crisis of the last week,” Murphy said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, declined to take a position on Sanders’s resolution but signaled that he trusted the Biden administration’s approach.
“The sale is going to take place a year from now … I hope they are talking to them about the proposed use of these weapons,” Kaine said.
Kaine added that the efforts to block the sale were “those like Bernie wanting to use this to express disapproval, even though they’re not going for a year. I think the Biden team is having these discussions with Israel.”
Progressives have fumed over the sale, as it coincides with a conflict that has left more than 200 people dead in the Gaza Strip and killed about a dozen in Israel. Sanders is being joined in his effort by a group in the House led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
While a growing number of Democrats, including leadership in both chambers, publicly backed efforts for a cease-fire, calling off the arms sale didn’t garner nearly as much support.
To make up that difference, Sanders would need to peel off a significant number of Republicans, who are unlikely to vote for his resolution.
Even Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), a libertarian-minded Republican who typically supports blocking arms sales, said he wouldn’t back the resolution.
“I have been opposed in the past to arms sales to people who I think are acting in a way that’s sort of an undemocratic way, a tyrannical way,” Paul said. “I think what I see Israel doing is acting in self-defense.”
In addition to the vote shortage, it’s unclear whether Sanders’s resolution will qualify for the fast-track procedures that allow him to bring it to the floor.
The Biden administration notified Congress on May 5 that it approved selling Israel $735 million in weapons, mostly Boeing-made joint direct attack munitions that can turn so-called dumb bombs into precision-guided missiles.
Most arms sales are subject to a 30-day congressional review period during which lawmakers can attempt to block the deal if they want. But some close allies, including Israel, are afforded a 15-day review period, which runs out this week.
“Midnight Friday is the end of the 15 days for this particular commercial sale to Israel, and the export license can be issued after that. We understand it’s usually done so pretty much automatically when time expires,” a Senate aide told The Hill.
But a disagreement has cropped up over when the review window expires and, once it does, what it means for Sanders’s ability to force a vote.
“I think procedurally he may be out of time,” Menendez said. “But I’m not sure, we’ll see what the parliamentarian has to say.”
The Senate aide and Cardin both said they expected that once the review window expires, Sanders’s resolution loses its privileged status that allows him to force a quick vote.
But Democrats said the parliamentarian has been asked to help resolve the dispute, though it was unclear how quickly they could receive a response.
“I think there’s different interpretations about the review period and, depending on which way the parliamentarian rules, it could expire today or it could expire sometime next week,” Murphy said.
But even that wouldn’t resolve two other problems: Under the fast-track procedures, Sanders still needs to let the resolution sit in the Foreign Relations Committee for 10 calendar days before he can try to bring it to the Senate floor. And the House is out of town until mid-June, well past the congressional review period.
Sanders’s office, when it announced the resolution on Thursday, said the measure is privileged, “which means the senator will have the option to bring it up for a vote.”
His office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on the procedure that would allow the senator to force a vote.
Sanders, approached by reporters in the Capitol, declined to comment, except to say that they were working on it and that he thought Congress should have a “discussion.”
“Our goal must be to bring, to do everything possible, under very, very difficult circumstances to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians together,” Sanders said. “That is the best way we fight terrorism, not just give support to Israel. We need an even handed approach.”
Rebecca Kheel contributed.