Saudi arms sales may be at center of the next showdown between Trump and Congress


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The Trump administration’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia are facing stiff opposition in Congress. However, the power to veto means that the ball remains in President Trump’s court for now.

Bipartisan opposition to President Trump’s cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia has been building for some time, stoked by the brazen –and, some say, state-backed– murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, and by Riyadh’s ongoing involvement in Yemen’s brutal civil war.

Despite lawmakers from both parties calling Washington’s relationship with Riyadh into question, the Trump administration has pressed ahead with arms sales to the kingdom. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced late last month that some $8 billion-worth of weaponry would be exported to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to counter the supposed threat posed by Iran – a move allowed without congressional sign-off in the event of an emergency.

Congress is pushing back. On Wednesday, House Democrats will unveil four measures of disapproval, aimed at blocking the 22 deals announced by Pompeo. Three of these focus specifically on the sale of precision-guided munitions, like the GBU-12 bomb that killed 40 schoolchildren in Yemen last August. The House Foreign Affairs Committee will also grill a senior State Department official on the emergency declaration that allowed the deals to go through.

Though these measures are likely to pass the Democrat-controlled House, getting them through the Republican-majority Senate will prove more difficult, as will President Trump’s power to veto any law that passes the upper house without a two-thirds majority. Still, a number of Senate Republicans and key Trump allies are prepared to break ranks with the president over the Saudi issue.

A bipartisan group of Senators has managed to lock in enough votes to pass 22 disapproval measures of their own – one for each component of the weapons deal. All 47 Democrats are expected to support the resolution, meaning only four Republicans need to break ranks to pass it. Republican Senators Rand Paul (Kentucky), Todd Young (Indiana) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) signed on as sponsors last week, while Mike Lee (Utah) agreed to sign on Tuesday.

Out of the four lawmakers, Graham’s support is most significant. Initially a ‘never Trump’ Republican, Graham has become one of Trump’s most loyal supporters in the Senate over the last year. “The fact that Lindsey is leading the resolution tells you that things are shifting inside the Republican caucus,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) said last week.

The disapproval motion is just one prong of the Senate’s attack on the arms deal. A resolution introduced by Murphy and Young on Monday would direct the Trump administration to provide a report on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and Congress to hold a subsequent vote before the deal could go through. Such a decision would affect not only the $8 billion deal in the pipeline, but all future weapons sales to Riyadh.

While both measures signal discontent in the Senate, the president’s veto power remains his trump card. Though Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) said that the passing of the disapproval measures is “just a question of process at this point,” it remains unclear whether enough Republicans will vote to pass them with a veto-proof supermajority.

And, while some Republicans are willing to vote to rebuke the president, others are keen to preserve the status quo, despite concerns over Saudi Arabia’s behavior.

“They’re going to buy ‘em from somebody,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “It’s not a matter of keeping them out of their hands, and they’re a sometimes-ally of the United States and they’re opposed to Iran.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) told reporters on Tuesday that he was “as offended as everyone by the behavior of the Saudis in the Khashoggi case.” However, “the relationship we have with the Saudis, one of our best allies against our Iranian enemies, is important.”

Murphy’s move to request a human rights report also faces another potential stumbling block. Once passed, the Trump administration would have 30 days to respond to the human rights query, and a vote would then have to be scheduled. With Congress’ August recess inching closer, time is not on Murphy’s side.  

In all likelihood, both efforts will face the same outcome: rejection at the hands of a veto-happy Trump. The president vetoed a Senate resolution condemning US support for the Saudi war in Yemen in May, and in April vetoed a similar resolution that had passed both houses of Congress.

“I think we’ll have our work cut out for us to beat the administration,” Murphy told The Hill on Tuesday.