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Senate votes to allow Saudi ‘defensive’ arms sale to proceed

The Biden administration had been pushing for the sale

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., shown in the Capitol last week, were divided on the issue of allowing arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., shown in the Capitol last week, were divided on the issue of allowing arms sales to Saudi Arabia. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate on Tuesday voted against a path forward for a resolution that would have banned a proposed weapons sale to Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration pushed for the sale, arguing that the arms are “defensive” in nature.

The resolution from Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, would have blocked the export of roughly $650 million worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. The arms package includes almost 600 Raytheon-made missile launchers and nearly 300 air-to-air missiles as well as spare parts and maintenance support.

The vote of 30 to 67 against the motion to discharge the joint resolution from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee effectively ensures the weapons sale will proceed regardless of how the House might have voted on the measure.

In floor remarks before the vote, Sanders listed a series of human rights abuses committed by Riyadh against Yemeni civilians and dissidents around the world, including the brutal murder in 2018 of Washington Post journalist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi.

“Why in the world would the United States reward such a regime, which has caused such pain in Yemen, with more weapons,” Sanders asked. “My friends, the answer is we should not.”

The White House said it “strongly” opposed the resolution, which it said undermined the administration’s pledge to Riyadh to support its defenses at a time of increased missile attacks from Yemen-based Houthi insurgents targeting Saudi civilians and critical infrastructure. The Biden administration also asserted an arms export ban by Congress would jeopardize its efforts to “lead with diplomacy” to end the fighting in Yemen, which has been taking place for nearly seven years.

“This proposed FMS [Foreign Military Sale] case would replenish Saudi Arabia’s existing inventory of air-to-air missiles,” the White House said in a statement of administration policy. “These missiles are not used to engage ground targets; Saudi Arabia uses these munitions to defend against aerial cross-border attacks, such as Houthi explosive-laden drones.”

Speaking against the resolution was Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, who was a prominent opponent during the Trump years of efforts to sell much larger “offensive” weapons packages to Saudi Arabia and its ally, the United Arab Emirates.

“Make no mistake, the Saudi-led coalition bears the brunt of the responsibility for the devastation in Yemen. Yet I along with most members of this body have always supported the use of weapons systems in defense of civilian populations,” the New Jersey Democrat said on the floor, noting the Biden administration “has largely brought to an end” offensive weapon exports to the oil-rich kingdom.

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, noted Saudi Arabia has suffered hundreds of drone missile attacks this year by Houthi insurgents with weaponry provided by Iran.

“As with many allies, they have items that we do not agree with,” Risch said. “This thing would be over if the Iranians would back away and get out of this. The Saudis obviously need the weapons. . . . We should support our allies when they are doing defensive things like this.”

The Yemeni civil war has caused the deaths of some 233,000 people, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. Most of those deaths have been from indirect causes such as lack of food or access to health care.

Rather than Biden administration diplomacy producing an end to the fighting in Yemen, there are signs the situation is worsening, House Democratic progressives said in urging the Senate to pass the Paul-Sanders resolution.

“Last month, Saudi Arabia tightened its blockade on Yemen, permitting just 3 percent of the fuel the country needs into Yemen’s major port,” said a joint statement from Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and the caucus whip, Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. “Saudi warplanes enforce a blockade on Yemen’s airspace, threatening to shoot down commercial and humanitarian flights. This has almost completely halted medicine and medical supplies from entering the country, and has amounted to a death sentence for tens of thousands of Yemenis seeking lifesaving treatment abroad.”

The weapons package is also opposed by a coalition of over 40 human rights, arms control and Arab issues advocacy groups, who sent a letter to Congress last week urging lawmakers to vote it down.

“Despite claiming defensive use, the proposed arms sale risks fueling continued civilian harm by strengthening the Saudi-led coalition’s capacity to enforce its devastating air and sea blockade of Yemen,” reads the coalition letter. “It also risks further perpetuating U.S. complicity in Saudi forces’ violations in Yemen, contrary to this administration’s obligations under international law and U.S. law.”

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