Congress

Bipartisan Senate group seeks to block Saudi arms sales as Trump administration tries to avoid congressional review

Top Democrat on Foreign Relations Menendez formally announces 22 separate disapproval measures

Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., right, is leading a bipartisan effort to push back on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's use of an emergency declaration for arms sales to Saudi Arabia. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Bipartisanship is breaking out in the Senate to push back on yet another emergency declaration from the Trump administration.

This time, the rebuttal comes over announced arms sales, including to Saudi Arabia, under the auspices of an emergency declaration from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

A bipartisan group led by Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey is filing 22 separate joint resolutions of disapproval of pending arms sales.

Through emergency powers, the administration is attempting to skip the normal 30-day congressional review period, prompting calls from Menendez and others for the State Department to reverse course.

“Regrettably, Secretary Pompeo’s abuse of this emergency authority has broken the arms sales process. The best thing the Secretary of State can do right now is withdraw his emergency certification, immediately submit these sales for the normal Congressional review and engage with senators to address our concerns,” Menendez said in a statement.

“Failing that, I am prepared to move forward with any and all options to nullify the licenses at issue for both Saudi Arabia and UAE and eliminate any ability for the administration to bypass Congress in future arms sales,” he said.

The effort to upend the arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is just the latest bipartisan effort to use a procedural tool allowing for expedited floor consideration of legislation.

While the disapproval method would be unprecedented in the case of an arms sale conducted to address a declared national emergency, its likely proponents will be able to push it to the Senate floor without needing 60 votes.

The parliamentary question is not resolved, though advocates appear to be confident that the rules of the Senate and the eventual interpretation of the Arms Export Control Act rules would ultimately favor the ability to move the resolutions through with simple majorities. If the Foreign Relations Committee does not act on the resolutions, they go to the floor automatically after 10 days.

A U.S. Department of State official told CQ Roll Call that “delaying these shipments could cause degraded systems and a lack of necessary parts and maintenance concerns for our key partners, during a time of increasing regional volatility.”

The Republicans backing the Menendez-led effort include Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who wields significant power regarding the State Department as the chairman of the State-Foreign Operations subcommittee.

“While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored. Now is not the time to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia,” Graham said in a statement. “I am also very concerned about the precedent these arms sales would set by having the administration go around legitimate concerns of the Congress. I expect and look forward to strong bipartisan support for these resolutions of disapproval.”

Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the lead Democrat on both Graham’s subcommittee and the full Appropriations Committee, is also an original co-sponsor.

“This administration’s credibility when it comes to arms sales, human rights, and the rule of law is in tatters. By introducing resolutions of disapproval, Republicans and Democrats are standing together in support of a process of consultation that has worked well for decades, regardless of which party controls the White House,” Leahy said in a statement.

The procedural maneuvering could wreak some havoc on the Senate schedule, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky potentially having to dedicate long stretches of floor time to the disapproval measures if time agreements or a deal with the Trump administration cannot be reached.

If the Senate does pass the bill, House Democrats appear ready to act on it. Every Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a joint statement promising new legislation and saying the administration’s explanation of the need to use emergency powers was “utterly without merit.”

Weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are especially unpopular with Congress due to widespread bipartisan concern about the aggressive and unchecked foreign policy of bin Salman, Riyadh’s de facto ruler.

Earlier this spring, and for the first time since the Vietnam War, Congress cleared a resolution under the War Powers Act that would have required the Pentagon to cease its support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in the Yemen civil war.

Trump vetoed the resolution and lawmakers didn’t have the two-thirds majorities to override, but the vote underscored Saudi Arabia’s unpopularity. 

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