Politics & Government

Bid to block part of Saudi arms deal fails in Senate

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. has authored a joint resolution disapproving the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. has authored a joint resolution disapproving the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. AP

A Senate effort to block the sale of precision-guided weaponry to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia failed, 53-47, as an unusual bipartisan coalition tried to stop the controversial deal.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., charged “we are fueling an arms race in the Middle East.” Paul, a staunch conservative, was joined by Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Al Franken, D-Minn., unusually identified with liberal causes.

“Selling the Saudis precision-guided munitions that are going to be used to target civilians makes us complicit in this humanitarian and national security disaster,” Murphy said in a statement. “Saudi Arabia needs to see that there will be consequences if they ignore U.S. demands and target civilian infrastructure.”

Paul shared that concern. “Today, I stand up for the millions of voiceless children in Yemen who will be killed by the Saudi blockade,” Paul said on the Senate floor.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said supporters of the resolution were trying to score partisan points against Trump and that the U.S. should back its friend in the region.

“Saudi Arabia has flaws, but they have been an ally," Corker said.

Under the terms of the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, Congress can use a joint resolution of disapproval to change or block a pending arms sale. Paul and Murphy made a similar bid last year, involving an Obama administration sale of tanks to Saudi Arabia. That effort also failed, drawing support from 27 senators.

The arms deal, which was negotiated in part by Trumps son-in-law Jared Kushner, was announced in the Saudi capital of Riyadh last month during the president's visit to the kingdom, his first foreign trip as president.

Trump’s involvement helped spark Democratic ire. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. announced his opposition to the sale, and his party delivered. Forty-one Democrats and two independents joined four Republicans in expressing opposition.

Hours before the vote, Paul told a group of congressional interns and staff members that the measure was largely symbolic. Even if the resolution had passed the Senate, Paul said it would have been dead in the House or vetoed by Trump.

But he said it was necessary to send a message to Saudi Arabia, who he called a “frenemy” in the war on terror. Paul criticized the country for human rights abuses, including jailing dissidents and punishing women who are victims of rape.

“Not looking away, we say, ‘It is important. Values do mean something.’ And that we shouldn’t be offering our weapons and our support to a country with these horrible abuses,” Paul said.

Human rights organizations have accused the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen of deliberately targeting civilians, and violating the laws of war, which the Saudi government has disputed. Paul said a Saudi blockade of Yemen was responsible for the near-starvation of millions.

Corker said Saudi Arabia was not targeting civilians and that guided weapons would lead to fewer civilian casualties.

“There is absolutely no evidence that Saudi Arabia tried to kill civilians. None,” Corker said. “As a matter of fact, there is evidence to the contrary.”

Paul also argued that withholding arms from Saudi Arabia could be also be used as leverage to force a regional pact on ballistic missile reduction that would include Iran. The Senate is debating a bill to impose further sanctions on Iran for developing ballistic missiles.

“[Iran is] never giving up on their ballistic missiles unless Saudi Arabia does the same thing,” Paul said.

Contact: Anshu Siripurapu at 202-383-6009 or asiripurapu@mcclatchydc.com