Dem, GOP senators want to check Trump's power to sell arms to Saudis

Image: President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohamm
President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on March 20, 2018. Copyright Jonathan Ernst Reuters file
By Dan De Luce with NBC News Politics
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Sens. Murphy and Young want a resolution that would let Congress vote on last month's arms deal and block or restrict future weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.


WASHINGTON — Two senators plan to introduce a bill Monday designed to force a vote on current and future U.S. arms sales and other military support to Saudi Arabia, saying it was time lawmakers checked President Donald Trump's attempts to bypass Congress on foreign policy.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who both sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, marks the latest counterpunch by lawmakers who strongly oppose selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and who are outraged at the Trump administration's recent decision to sidestep Congress on an arms deal worth billions of dollars.

"The process we are setting in motion will allow Congress to weigh in on the totality of our security relationship with Saudi Arabia, not just one arms sale, and restore Congress's role in foreign policy-making," Murphy said in a statement.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators, including Murphy and Young, proposed nearly two dozen resolutions that would require votes on each of the arms sales that make up the $8.1 billion weapons package to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan announced by the Trump administration on May 24. By law, arm sales require congressional approval but the Trump administration avoided any review by lawmakers for the controversial deal by declaring a national security "emergency," citing the threat posed by Iran.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Jan. 30, 2019.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Jan. 30, 2019.Andrew Harnik

Now Murphy and Young are proposing a separate resolution that would allow Congress to vote on not only the expedited arms deal last month but to block or restrict future weapons sales and military assistance to Saudi Arabia.

Frustration over Saudi Arabia's killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and its intervention in Yemen's civil war — and President Trump's reluctance to criticize Riyadh — has sparked a growing bipartisan response in Congress.

"Our arms sales to Saudi Arabia demand Congressional oversight," Sen. Young said in a statement. "This bipartisan resolution simply asks the Secretary of State to report on some basic questions before moving forward with them. The ongoing humanitarian crisis and complicated security environment in Yemen requires our sustained attention and we cannot permit U.S. military equipment to worsen the situation on the ground."

Murphy said the administration "has effectively given a blank check to the Saudis — turning a blind eye to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and allowing their ballistic missile program to expand," and added: "Congress needs to change how we do business with the Kingdom."

In a vote in March to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and to curtail presidential war powers, seven Republican senators sided with Democrats to pass the bill. But Trump vetoed the legislation last month.

It remains unclear whether more Republicans will join Democratic senators to form a sufficient majority to overcome a future presidential veto on the new resolutions being proposed on Saudi arms sales.

"We believe we would gain lots of bipartisan support on this," said a Democratic congressional aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

The Trump administration has rejected criticism of its staunch support for Saudi Arabia, portraying the country as an important bulwark against Iran, citing Iran's backing of Houthi rebels in Yemen and Houthi rocket attacks into Saudi territory. President Trump often has argued that arms sales to Saudi Arabia are important for U.S. defense companies and generate jobs for Americans.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the decision last month to fast-track the massive arms package, saying the threat from Iran required urgent action and that Washington needed to act as a reliable supplier of weapons and ammunition for its Arab partners.

The State Department, which oversees U.S. arms exports, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Murphy and Young's resolution.

The resolution cites an obscure provision of the Foreign Assistance Act, which allows Congress to request information on a country's human rights record within 30 days. After receiving a report, Congress can then vote on restricting or halting security assistance to that country, congressional aides said.

Apart from setting up votes on weapons deals for Riyadh, the resolution would also force the administration to offer a public accounting to Congress on the kingdom's human rights record.

The Trump administration has yet to provide a report to Congress as required by law as to whether Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was personally responsible for the death of Khashoggi, who was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

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