The Senate on Monday failed to overturn President Donald Trump’s veto of a ban on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.
The Senate vote marked yet another defeat for a bipartisan majority of lawmakers who have pushed to rebuke the Saudis for the kingdom’s role in the slaying of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its deadly bombing campaign in Yemen.
Trump has twice used his veto power to kill legislation aimed at reversing his pro-Saudi policies. And while lawmakers have cringed at Trump’s warm praise for Saudi leaders and warned of a coming reckoning in U.S.-Saudi relations, Congress has been unable to force any real change in that alliance.
Republicans and Democrats alike argue that despite Monday’s vote, the Saudis are on thin ice and remain in jeopardy of losing America as a strategic partner.
“If the Saudis don’t change their conduct, the relationship is going to be irreparably damaged,” Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters last week. “They’re only one Khashoggi-type event away from totally severing their relationship with (the U.S.) and having to find a new partner.”
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who had been critical of the Saudi royal family, was slain inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey last fall; the CIA has concluded the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, directed the killing.
Khashoggi’s death came on the heels of other perceived foreign policy blunders attributed to the crown prince – including the kingdom’s kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister and its conduct in the Yemen war, which has resulted in thousands of civilian casualties.
Lawmakers have said those actions cannot go unchecked. But Trump has questioned the CIA’s findings in the Khashoggi case and said that his slaying, while a horrible act, should not alter America’s close alliance with the Saudis.
Trump vetoed legislation in April that would have forced him to end the U.S. military’s support for the Saudi-led bombing in Yemen. Supporters of that measure were unable to muster the two-thirds supermajority needed to override that veto.
The same dynamic unfolded Monday, when lawmakers came up well short in the vote to override Trump’s veto of the weapons sales. At issue were three bills to block the pending transfer of precision-guided missiles and other weapons, part of a broader $8.1 billion deal to sell arms to the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Forty-five senators supported overriding Trump’s veto on two of the bills, while the third earned 46 “yes” votes.
“The United States and Saudi Arabia need a course correction,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said before Monday’s vote. He said Khashoggi’s brutal killing “may have been the final violent straw that broke the camel’s back.”
But so far, there’s no evidence the Saudis are cowed by Congress’ actions. Indeed, foreign policy experts note the Saudis have continued to commit horrific human rights abuses.
The kingdom conducted a mass execution of 37 people, including a U.S. college student, in April. And officials have arrested a number of women’s rights activists, including two U.S.-Saudi citizens.
“It is difficult to see any change in their behavior at this point,” said Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow with the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group. But, he said, Monday’s vote and other congressional actions will send a signal to the Saudis that “they don’t have a free hand to act as irresponsibly as they might want.”
Monday’s vote represented “a pretty stiff rebuke” of Trump’s pro-Saudi stance, Abramson said. “This is an unprecedented level of congressional assertion of power against this president,” he argued.
Gerald Feierstein, director of government relations and policy at the Middle East Institute, said there’s deep resistance to any rupture in the U.S.-Saudi alliance inside the U.S. defense and energy communities. That limits the number of lawmakers willing to support a rebuke, he said, in a body that is already deferential to the executive branch on foreign policy.
But Feierstein, a former ambassador to Yemen, agreed that lawmakers have managed to send a message to the Saudis, and to the Trump administration, with the votes on the weapons deal and the war in Yemen.
Sen. Christopher Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and leading critic of the Saudis, said he intends to keep pressing other legislation that would “reset” the U.S-Saudi relationship.
“Instead of holding the Saudis accountable, this administration instead continues to provide them a blank check,” Murphy said in a statement to USA TODAY. He plans to push for a vote in September on legislation that could restrict U.S. security assistance to Saudi Arabia.
Other lawmakers are hoping to attach restrictions on Saudi arms sales and other curbs to a must-pass defense authorization bill. But Feierstein said those measures are likely to meet the same fate as Monday’s bill.
The administration, he said, “will turn up all the heat to make sure” none of those provisions end up in a bill that Trump otherwise wants to sign.
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