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Why a new bipartisan effort could damage Trump’s plans for closer US-Saudi ties

Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) aim to force a vote on US-Saudi relations and weapons sales.

President Donald Trump meets Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office on March 20, 2018.
President Donald Trump meets Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office on March 20, 2018.
Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump for months has sidestepped Congress to enhance his deeply controversial relationship with Saudi Arabia. But on Monday, a bipartisan Senate effort will start a short process to force a vote on those ties — and possibly deliver one of the strongest rebukes to the administration’s foreign policy.

In May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a legal loophole to export roughly $8 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. That angered lawmakers — who have the authority to approve or reject weapons sales — from both parties because Riyadh has yet to face any real punishment for the October killing of Saudi journalist, dissident, and US resident Jamal Khashoggi.

Plus, both countries have waged a four-year, US-backed war in Yemen that has killed more than 50,000 and left tens of millions in need of humanitarian aid.

But there is a provision in a weapons export law allowing the executive branch to sell arms without congressional sign-off if “an emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States.” Administrations rarely invoke it, experts say, mainly because of how controversial it is and the high bar required to claim such a dire situation exists. The Trump administration chose to use it in this case, though, citing a perceived threat from Iran against its two Gulf allies.

It’s clear now that lawmakers want much more of a say.

Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Chris Murphy (D-CT), both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced Sunday that they would introduce a bill compelling legislators to vote on sending weapons and military aid to Saudi Arabia.

The resolution would see lawmakers vote on requesting a report from the administration about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. After receiving the document within 30 days, the legally mandated deadline, Congress can then vote on whether or not to sell arms and give other support to Riyadh.

Young and Murphy, skeptical of Trump’s coziness with Saudi Arabia and the Yemen war, believe their measure will help Congress claw back some foreign policy authority.

“Our arms sales to Saudi Arabia demand Congressional oversight. This bipartisan resolution simply asks the Secretary of State to report on some basic questions before moving forward with them,” said Young in a statement.

“The process we are setting in motion will allow Congress to weigh in on the totality of our security relationship with Saudi Arabia, not just one arms sale, and restore Congress’s role in foreign policy making,” noted Murphy.

Their effort on Monday could fail, of course. A State Department spokesperson told Politico on Sunday that the sales would go forward because the weapons are “needed to help our partners better defend themselves and to reinforce recent changes to US posture in the region to deter Iran.” It’s also unclear how much support the two senators will receive when they introduce their resolution.

What is clear, though, is that the Trump administration continues to face stiff resistance from Congress on its unwavering alliance with Saudi Arabia — and that’s causing some major headaches for the White House.

The biggest threat to closer US-Saudi ties? Congress.

Just last week, Young and Murphy joined a broader bipartisan group — including staunch Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — to block 22 arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Young and Murphy’s new effort runs parallel to that one.

Those two initiatives are emblematic of just how widespread the congressional campaign to separate Washington and Riyadh really is.

In April, Congress passed a historic War Powers Resolution directing Trump to remove troops involved in “hostilities” in the Yemen war. Trump vetoed it, though, because of his commitment to the US’s longstanding alliance with the Saudis — not to mention his personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, who called for Khashoggi’s killing.

That hasn’t stopped lawmakers and activists from trying to sever the two. As Vox’s Tara Golshan reported last week, House progressives may use the annual must-pass defense spending bill to force Trump’s hand in the Middle East.

A coalition of more than 40 activist groups sent every House lawmaker a letter demanding they include provisions to ban the transfer, sale, or export of any defense materials that would be used in the war in Yemen for a minimum of two years, and end all US aid — from intelligence to logistical support — to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the war.

“We are trying to stiffen the resolve of members of Congress as we approach the consideration of the national defense budget,” Hassan El-Tayyab, the co-director of Just Foreign Policy, a progressive foreign policy group, told Golshan last week. “We have the momentum here. What remains to be seen is whether [Congress] has the resolve to do what it takes.”

Saudi leadership and Trump will hope not, but increasingly, Republicans and Democrats in Congress seem to think they do.

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