Senate to Debate Selling Arms to Saudis, War in Yemen

Paul and Murphy plan to force vote

Sen. Rand Paul said he expects a vote on his resolution to come Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Sen. Rand Paul said he expects a vote on his resolution to come Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted September 19, 2016 at 5:14pm

A small-but-vocal band of senators who want the chamber more engaged in debates over war and authorizing the use of force have found a way to carve out floor time.

Senators will face a vote this week on a resolution disapproving the sale of more than a billion dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said Monday afternoon that it looked likely that the measure he’s drafted with a bipartisan group also led by Connecticut Democrat Christopher S. Murphy will get a vote on Wednesday.

The resolution itself would disapprove of a roughly $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia that includes 153 Abrams tanks. But it’s essentially a proxy vote about U.S.-Saudi ties and the kingdom’s military response to an uprising in neighboring Yemen.

“I would argue that … our issues are not aligned in fighting in the way that many new senators and congressmen are taught when you show up here. I think we have largely turned the other way, and allowed for the Saudis to create a version of Islam which has become the building blocks for the very groups that we are fighting today,” Murphy said Monday at an event hosted by the Center for the National Interest which Paul also attended.

Republicans and Democrats on a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in May condemned Riyadh for what some called its spread of hateful Wahhabi beliefs in schools around the world.

Neither senator is predicting success, but Murphy said that the Saudis have effectively ignored warnings about avoiding certain targets. Saudi-led airstrikes have accounted for a large proportion of civilian casualties in the Yemen conflict.

[Obama Faces a Growing Dilemma Over Saudi Ties]

“We have begged them to be better about targeting,” Murphy said. “We have told them the targets not to hit and they have not listened.”

The two senators were asked about what effect blocking a pending arms sale would have on defense contracting jobs.

Paul said that such agreements should not be viewed as a “jobs program.”

The issue is particularly sensitive for Murphy, whose home state defense industries churn out jet engines, helicopters and submarines.

“I will never make a decision that compromises U.S. national security in order to gain defense jobs in my state,” Murphy said.

The alliance between Murphy and Paul may seem unusual, but the two senators represent less-interventionist wings of their respective parties.

Paul said they and like-minded lawmakers are working against a “bipartisan consensus” in favor of U.S. intervention, and there’s been a longstanding lack of appetite for big debates on Capitol Hill about authorizing the use of force.

[House Passes Bill Allowing 9/11 Lawsuits Against Saudi Arabia]

The Obama administration continues to rely on the 2001 authorization  that came out in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

At times, senators like Murphy, Paul, and 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine of Virginia have seemed like voices in the wilderness, with most senators generally unwilling to even call use of force resolutions up for votes.

That is what’s led them to use more arcane gambits. Paul once sought to attach a use of force resolution to an unrelated water policy bill. This week, he’s deploying the expedited process available under a 1976 arms export control law.

Kaine’s Senate office would not immediately say where he stood on the Saudi arms deal.

Contact Lesniewski at and follow him on Twitter @nielslesniewski.