Congress opens several new fronts in bid to block Gulf arms sales

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Article Summary
The House joined Senate efforts to stop the Donald Trump administration from selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

House Democrats Wednesday introduced a series of measures tackling the Donald Trump administration’s invocation of emergency powers to transfer arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, supplementing similar bipartisan efforts in the Senate. 

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., introduced a joint resolution intended to block 22 separate transfers to the Gulf worth $8.1 billion that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo approved last month without the customary congressional notification period by citing an emergency threat posed by Iran and its support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

“There is no emergency, but there is a conflict in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians with US-made weapons and a Congress that is tired of being complicit,” Lieu said in a statement. “Our arms sales process was designed to include congressional review to ensure that US interests and laws are always met with each sale. The Trump administration knows that these sales would not meet that standard, so they’ve decided to declare a fake emergency in order to bypass Congress.”

Reps. David Cicilline, D-R.I., Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., have introduced separate legislation specifically taking aim at Raytheon-made precision-guided munitions included in the sales. The lawmakers introduced the new legislation as House Democrats grilled R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, on the Iran emergency declaration during a hearing Wednesday.

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House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., noted that even though the emergency declaration circumvented the 30-day congressional review period, several of the arms transfers wouldn’t take place for months or even years. 

“Here’s the reality: There is no emergency,” Engel told Cooper. “Do you know how I know? Because a real emergency would require weapons that can be delivered immediately, not months or even years from now.”

Democrats repeatedly pointed out that Pompeo did not reference any Iran-related emergency during a closed-door briefing for lawmakers days before he made the declaration last month. They also said Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had noted that the threat from Tehran “has now diminished” after weeks of mounting tensions.

Cooper pushed back by saying a yearlong hold on 120,000 precision-guided weapons for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen was partially responsible for the emergency declaration. He also cited “the significant increase in the intelligence threat streams related to Iran,” arguing that the declaration sent “a message of deterrence to Tehran” and of reassurance to Washington’s Gulf allies.

Engel said he has been working with the committee’s top Republican, Mike McCaul, R-Texas, for “months” on legislation “to make sure future arms sales only go forward if the country buying those weapons meets certain conditions.” McCaul added that the legislation aims to “stop civilian deaths” and that he had discussed it with national security adviser John Bolton “a week or two” before the Trump administration made the emergency declaration. However, McCaul said he shared “the administration’s frustration” that the informal hold on precision guided munitions for the Saudi coalition “was a little too long.”

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who first placed the hold that the emergency declaration sought to bypass, has secured enough Republican support to pass 22 expedited resolutions blocking the sales. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Todd Young, R-Ind., Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have all co-sponsored Menendez’s legislation.

However, it remains unclear whether the Senate parliamentarian will allow the votes to proceed given the emergency declaration. Even if Congress does pass the legislation, Democrats likely don’t have enough Republican support to override President Donald Trump’s expected veto.

Meanwhile, Young teamed up with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., earlier this week to introduce another expedited resolution requiring Pompeo to report on Saudi coalition human rights violations in Yemen and the role of US security assistance in civilian casualties. After Congress receives the report, lawmakers can put forth another expedited resolution to block arms sales — which Trump could also veto.

To get around a presidential veto, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview earlier this month that he plans to introduce legislation eliminating the emergency loophole as an amendment to a State Department funding bill.

And Paul is also taking aim at separate missile sales to Bahrain — a Saudi-coalition member — and Qatar, which Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have blockaded for two years. Paul told Al-Monitor that he expects the Senate to vote on his expedited resolutions blocking the sales later this week.

“Bahrain’s involved in the war in Yemen,” argued Paul, who failed 77-21 to block a similar sale to Manama last year. At the time, even other Saudi skeptics such as Murphy argued that the weapons were unlikely to actually be used in Yemen.

However, Paul’s Qatar resolution will mark the first time that lawmakers vote on arms sales for Doha.

“Qatar’s been involved with arming terrorists throughout decades,” said Paul. “I don’t trust any of them. I think there’s an arms race going on in the Middle East. It’s a cauldron, and it’s a mistake to just keep funneling more arms in there.”

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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