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White House threatens to veto resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales

President Donald Trump speaks with Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, during their meeting Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Shealah Craighead/White House)

The White House said Thursday it would veto Senate-passed measures to block its proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries.

“The transfer of these capabilities and services to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan directly supports the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by improving the security of friendly countries that continue to be important forces for political and economic stability in the Middle East,” according to a statement of administration policy memo.

That document, dated Thursday, was released hours after Iran shot down a U.S. military drone amid escalating tensions with Tehran. The White House statement cited that situation in defending the proposed sales.

“Additionally, the joint resolutions would affect the ability of our partners to deter and defend against Iran’s hostile acts,” the White House said. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia serves as a bulwark against the malign activities of Iran and its proxies in the region.”

The Senate earlier passed 22 resolutions disapproving of proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sending the measures to the House, where they face good prospects for passage.

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Over the course of three roll call votes, the Senate passed disapproval resolutions that under the Arms Export Control Act would allow Congress to try to block administration plans to export weapons. The chamber passed two of the 22 resolutions with identical votes of 53-45. Senators passed the remaining 20 resolutions in an en bloc vote, 51-45.

The Senate also isn’t finished speaking out about Saudi Arabia. On Wednesday, the leaders of the Foreign Relations Committee announced they struck a deal to hold a markup next week on two pieces of legislation that could impose sanctions on certain Saudi individuals and make it much more difficult for the Trump administration to export weapons to the kingdom.

“I want to be clear to my friends in Saudi Arabia and really throughout the world that a strategic relationship has certain requirements attached to it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally and harsh critic of Riyadh, in floor remarks explaining his decision to vote against the arms sales. “You don’t have to run your country like the United States would have you do. You don’t have to mirror the United States in terms of your values, but you do have to respect the relationship.”

The resolutions covered each of the 22 components of an $8.1 billion arms package Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced last month. In announcing the proposed sales, Pompeo declared an emergency situation with respect to Iran to avoid a statutory 30-day congressional review period.

However, Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez, who had informally blocked the Gulf weapons sales for over a year, organized a bipartisan group of senators to file the disapproval resolutions.

The New Jersey Democrat argued Pompeo’s declaration of an emergency situation with respect to Iran did not pass the smell test. He noted senior State Department officials have publicly admitted the department had for months prior considered issuing the emergency declaration to overcome his hold and that some portions of the weapons package would not be ready for delivery for months, if not years.

Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper acknowledged last week during a House hearing that maintaining friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and reassuring the kingdom of the administration’s support was a major factor for making the emergency declaration.

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“At the end of the day, these votes are not about any one president or any one arm sale … .There will be another president who will want to claim executive authority to run over Congress,” Menendez said from the Senate floor Thursday. “We in this body must embrace our Article 1 responsibilities to ensure we serve as an effective check on whoever that president is.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued in favor of allowing the weapons sales to go forward.

“The vast majority of senators share serious concerns over some of the policies and actions of our Saudi partners. But rejecting long-planned arms sales strikes me as an overly blunt tool with several unintended consequences,” he said Thursday. “The dynamics at play are not black and white. We can best shape these dynamics by working closely with our partners to encourage them in the right direction rather than turning our back.”

Humanitarian organizations and anti-war groups applauded the Senate’s vote.

“Congress’ commitment to saving lives in Yemen is working: the parties to the conflict are on notice that they cannot count on American support forever,” Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy leader, Scott Paul, said in a statement. “Congress must continue to take bold action. … Should the House pass these resolutions of disapproval, both House and the Senate members should be prepared to override President Trump’s likely veto.”

Menendez decided to file 22 separate resolutions as a negotiating tactic. As each resolution was entitled to 10 hours of floor debate, the prospect of having to go through each measure one by one could have tied up the Senate calendar for weeks.

In order to avoid such an outcome, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, agreed to schedule a committee markup next week for two bills from Menendez related to Saudi Arabia accountability.

“I’m glad we secured a bipartisan understanding yesterday to expedite their consideration so that the 22 separate resolutions which members have introduced will not jeopardize the defense bill or the emergency border funding that we must also consider next week,” McConnell said.

One bill expected to come up at the Foreign Relations markup next week is a measure Risch is developing with input from the State Department and White House. That legislation has yet to be introduced. But the agreement reached this week with Menendez would involve the ranking member offering his own bipartisan Saudi Arabia accountability bill (S 398) as an amendment to the underlying bill.

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