Senators to Introduce Measure Opposing $1B Arms Sale to Saudis

September 7, 2016
In The News

A bipartisan push against a $1.15 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia is gaining steam in protest of Riyadh’s bombing campaign in Yemen — but remains split on whether to oppose the sale or block it outright.

Multiple congressional aides tell Foreign Policy that Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut are preparing legislation, to be filed this week, opposing the U.S. package of tanks, ammunition, and machine guns to Saudi Arabia.

It follows a letter last week from more than 60 House lawmakers who sought to delay the arms sale after a series of Saudi-led airstrikes reportedly killed civilian targets in August.

 Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California, who helped lead the House’s letter campaign, praised his Senate colleagues for “taking action” against the arms sale. “Once the public learns the facts of the Saudi military’s atrocities in Yemen, they will call for this arms sale to be rejected and for the U.S. to withdraw its support of the Saudis in this conflict,” he told FP on Wednesday. 

Spokespeople for Paul and Murphy declined comment.

The measure is expected to take the form of a non-binding resolution of disapproval that would receive a floor vote in about two weeks. But the two senators are also considering binding legislation that would block the proposed sale if they sense that the measure would pass, according to congressional aides.

The 18-month conflict in Yemen has killed at least 6,000 people and displaced 2.5 million more as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-majority allies battle Houthi rebels for control of the country. The chaotic fighting has also allowed Islamist militants to deepen their foothold in Yemen; meanwhile, Houthi rebels have fired missiles into Saudi Arabia.

The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A State Department official declined to say if the Obama administration would cede to congressional demands and delay the proposed sale.

However, the official said State is reviewing last week’s letter, which cited August reports of a Saudi airstrike on a school in Yemen that killed 10 children and another strike that hit a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital and killed 11 people.

Generally, Congress has 30 days to block the sale of similar military packages of this type, meaning the clock technically could run out as soon as Thursday, as House parliamentarians believe. But Senate experts say the 30 calendar-day deadline does not apply to the upper chamber because it was adjourned for the summer recess.

The House letter sent to the White House earlier this month explicitly complained about the timing issue and congressional staff in both parties remain incensed.

“Whether or not it was done intentionally, the administration is setting a dangerous precedent by starting the 30-day review clock while Congress is adjourned for the summer recess,” a Democratic congressional aide told FP.

The U.S. officially backs the Saudi-led coalition against the Shiite Houthi forces in Yemen. U.N.-sponsored talks aimed at finding a political resolution to the conflict imploded last month and Saudi-led forces resumed their bombing campaign.

The relief group Médecins Sans Frontières announced last month they were pulling out of six hospitals in northern Yemen because of the  “indiscriminate bombings and unreliable reassurances” from Riyadh and its Arab allies.