By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican and Democratic U.S. senators said on Wednesday they would introduce legislation that would block President Donald Trump’s plan for $8 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates without congressional review.
Backers said the introduction of the 22 “resolutions of disapproval,” one for each of the 22 arms deals cleared by the Trump administration, was intended to “protect and reaffirm Congress’ role of approving arms sales to foreign governments.”
The announcement followed furious rejection in Congress late last month of the Trump administration’s declaration that a growing threat from Iran was an emergency that forced it to sidestep lawmakers’ review of major arms deals and approve precision-guided munitions, aircraft engines, mortars and other equipment for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan.
“We are taking this step today to show that we will not stand idly by and allow the President or the Secretary of State to further erode Congressional review and oversight of arm sales,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Trump’s fellow Republicans control a majority in the Senate but some have been pushing back lately against his proposals. On Wednesday, hope grew for a deal to avoid U.S. tariffs on Mexican goods after many Republicans opposed the idea because of its potential impact on cross-border trade and U.S. businesses.
Menendez, and Republican Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally who also is a critic of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, led the push for the resolutions.
Members of Congress had been blocking sales of offensive military equipment to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for months, angry about the huge civilian toll from their air campaign in Yemen, as well as rights abuses such as the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
“While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of (Saudi Crown Prince) Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored,” Graham said in a statement. “Now is not the time to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia.”
Graham said he expected “strong bipartisan support” for the resolutions.
Many lawmakers say the powerful crown prince is ultimately responsible for Khashoggi’s murder and other rights abuses. The government in Riyadh denies that.
Two other Republican senators – Rand Paul and Todd Young – and three Democrats – Chris Murphy, Patrick Leahy and Jack Reed – also joined the announcement.
Declaring the emergency, the Trump administration informed congressional committees on May 24 that it was going ahead with 22 military deals worth $8.1 billion, circumventing a long-standing precedent for lawmakers to review major weapons sales.
The decision angered members of both parties, who worried that Trump’s decision to blow through the review process would eliminate Congress’ ability to prevent not just Trump but future presidents from selling weapons where they liked.
Announcing their plan to introduce the 22 resolutions, the senators said Trump’s “unprecedented” action is at odds with longstanding practice and cooperation between Congress and the executive branch.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, said resistance to the arms sale plan could be a sign that some Republicans were willing to constrain the president after backing almost all of his policies.
“Let’s hope that these murmurings among Republicans … are real and they will actually stand up to him,” Schumer said.
Reuters reported on Tuesday that lawmakers were working on responses to the administration’s action and could file legislation within days. A separate set of legislative responses is being considered in the House of Representatives.
The Arms Export Control Act gives Congress the right to stop a major weapons sale by passing a resolution of disapproval in both the Senate and House.
Opponents of the sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE said strong bipartisan support for disapproval resolutions would send a forceful message to the administration – as well as defense contractors and the three countries – that Congress was unhappy about the process and could retaliate.
They also said it was possible, given the level of congressional anger over Trump’s use of the emergency declaration, that some of the resolutions would garner the two-thirds majorities in the Senate and House needed to override a Trump veto if necessary.
(Additional reporting by Makini Brice; editing by Susan Thomas, James Dalgleish and Bill Trott)