The Senate on Thursday rejected a bid by Sen. Rand Paul to block arms sales to Qatar and Bahrain even as senators brace for a more contentious debate next week over proposed weapons exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The vote Thursday means the proposed sales — a $3 billion Apache Helicopter package for Qatar and a $750 million munitions package to support Bahrain’s F-16 fleet — can go forward.
Senators voted 43-56 against the motion to discharge the disapproval resolution for the Bahrain sale from the Foreign Relations Committee and 42-57 against the motion to discharge the disapproval resolution for the Qatar sale.
Paul, a foreign policy isolationist, argued it was unwise to permit further weapons exports to the Middle East at a time of rising regional instability between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as continued threats from regional terrorist groups.
Paul used most of his floor time to castigate Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. He sought to connect lawmakers’ deep frustrations with Riyadh to the weapon sales to Bahrain — a tiny Gulf nation that is a close ally of Riyadh — and Qatar — a political rival of Saudi Arabia.
“The Middle East is a hot cauldron continuing and continually threatening to boil over. I think it’s a mistake to funnel arms into these century-old conflicts,” the Kentucky Republican said. “Indirectly, today’s vote is about the wisdom of proliferating arms in the Middle East.”
Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is leading Senate opposition to the Trump administration’s decision to skirt congressional review of a separate $8.1 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, said he supported Paul’s discharge motion because he wanted to underline the principle of congressional oversight even as he supports the proposed weapons exports to Bahrain and Qatar.
Paul is one of four Senate Republicans backing Menendez’s initiative.
“I do support the senator from Kentucky’s right to seek full consideration of them by the Senate,” Menendez said in floor remarks. “Given the administration’s decision last month to completely flout congressional review over arm sales, I’m supporting this motion in order to once again emphasize the importance of congressional oversight and due diligence.”
Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch urged his colleagues to avoid conflating their frustration with Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration’s steadfast loyalty to the kingdom with the matter of the arms sales to Bahrain and Qatar.
“These sales, the two regarding Bahrain and Qatar, address the legitimate security interests of both countries and strengthen U.S. partnership with both countries,” the Idaho Republican said from the floor. “The news this morning of attacks on two more civilian oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman lends further weight that our allies and partners in the region need greater capabilities . . . for their defense.”
The White House has threatened to veto both of the disapproval resolutions.
Menendez said he was heartened by the depth of Senate feeling over the administration’s handling of the Saudi Arabia issue, adding “I certainly look forward to a more robust debate and vote on those sales next week.”