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Saudi arms resolutions are within rules, McConnell says

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the effort to contest arms sales to Saudi Arabia is in line with Senate rules and procedures. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the effort to contest arms sales to Saudi Arabia is in line with Senate rules and procedures. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said he believes a bipartisan effort to force floor votes contesting the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states is in line with Senate rules and procedures, despite the State Department’s declaration last month of an emergency situation in order to skirt congressional oversight.

“My understanding is there would still be a vote triggered no matter which path the administration chose to go forward on the sales,” McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters in response to a question by CQ Roll Call. “Presumably, it will be very similar to a resolution of disapproval under a more traditional approach. At least, that’s what we think the parliamentarian believes.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., led a bipartisan group of six senators last week in introducing 22 separate resolutions of disapproval — one for each component of an $8.1 billion package of weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah joined the effort this week, making him the fourth Republican co-sponsor. Assuming all 47 Senate Democrats vote in favor of the disapproval resolutions, the four Republicans would provide enough support to send the resolutions to the Democratic House, where they are expected to pass easily.

McConnell appeared to acknowledge this reality while also suggesting there was not adequate support to overcome an expected veto by President Donald Trump.

“I, for myself, am going to support the sale, and therefore I will be voting against the resolution of disapproval and for sustaining the veto when it comes back,” he said.

The 1976 Arms Export Control Act allows lawmakers to force floor votes to block proposed weapons exports. The law requires the administration to notify Congress of sales, giving lawmakers a 30-day review period before the sale can be completed. The Trump administration sought to sidestep that review by declaring an emergency situation with Iran.

But the Senate is in somewhat uncharted territory in expediting the Menendez resolutions because lawmakers have never introduced a disapproval resolution under the arms export law after the declaration of an emergency.

Part of the strategy behind introducing 22 separate disapproval resolutions rather than one is to force floor votes on each, eating into floor time and essentially forcing the administration to choose between competing priorities — such as confirming judicial and executive nominees or pushing through the weapon sales to Riyadh. The kingdom is widely unpopular on Capitol Hill as result of its assassination last year of a prominent Saudi dissident journalist as well as its disastrous human rights record in the Yemen civil war.

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., who is a co-sponsor of the resolutions, told CQ Roll Call he isn’t trying to monopolize the Senate floor but wants to ensure that the constitutional principle of congressional oversight is maintained.

“We’re working with the parliamentarian on this to figure out how, on one hand, we can make sure that we’re able to articulate our respective sentiments with respect to this decision, but we also would like to expedite the process,” Young said. “I just want a fair process. I want to make sure that we on the committee exercise our oversight function. I know that every single member of the Foreign Relations Committee shares that sentiment.”

In addition to Lee and Young, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky back the resolutions.

The clock for the Foreign Relations Committee considering the 22 resolutions will run out this weekend, allowing Menendez to start bringing the measures to the floor early next week.

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