As President Donald Trump aligns with Saudi Arabia amid a fresh dispute among Gulf nations, senators in both parties as soon as Thursday will try to block him from selling more than $500 million in offensive weapons to Riyadh.
The Senate bid to stop the Saudi arms sales — a small portion of what the White House claims will be a $110 billion package — is likely to fail. But the push to tie Trump’s hands will probably find more support than a similar brushback pitch directed at President Barack Obama last year, as Democrats are far more united behind the proposal. Not only do Democrats have little reason to give Trump a win on any front, they’re also stepping up their outcry over Saudi involvement in Yemen’s worsening civil war.
If backers of the effort to stop Trump’s arms deals can do better than they did in the previous vote to bless Obama’s Saudi tank sales, they say they’ll send a message to the Saudi government that its warm ties to Trump won’t stanch congressional concern over civilian casualties in Yemen.
The disapproval measure expected to see a vote Thursday, spearheaded by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), is expected to draw the majority of Democrats as well as a handful of Republicans.
Paul told POLITICO that he believes “the general public is with us.”
“I think, if you were to ask the general public, should we be at war in Yemen or supporting war in Yemen, I think most people would say, ‘where?’” Paul added. “I think there should be a valid debate on it.”
Several senior Democrats who voted to allow Obama’s Saudi sale are now shifting to oppose Trump’s weapons deals, which are being rolled out without the humanitarian or political pressure that the previous White House had exerted on Riyadh. The Foreign Relations panel’s top Democrat, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, publicly announced his vote to block the sales after supporting Obama’s deal, while Sen Jeff Merkley’s (D-Ore.) office told POLITICO he would also vote against Trump’s arms sales.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who voted to preserve Obama’s deal last year, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who missed that vote, both said in interviews this week that they were leaning toward voting for the Paul-Murphy disapproval measure.
Two other key votes who remain publicly undecided are Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), to whom advocates opposing the sale have paid particular attention to courting, and the Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed.
"Everybody’s going to be focused on something else" on Thursday, Murphy said in an interview, referring to former FBI Director James Comey’s hotly anticipated testimony. "But it’s going to be a close vote."
Despite the prospects of a more lopsided Democratic vote to block Trump’s sales, Murphy said he’s also hoping for stronger GOP support. Three of the four Republicans who backed the effort to block Obama’s Saudi arms deal are still in office, and freshman Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) is a key ally on a related effort to set anti-terrorism and Yemen-related conditions on future air-to-ground weapons deals.
"We need to send the Saudis a message that they need to get serious about the humanitarian nightmare inside Yemen," said Murphy, who spoke at Democrats’ regular caucus meeting on Tuesday to boost support for blocking the Trump sales.
"Unfortunately, the administration has not used these weapons sales to apply that conditionality. But a strong message from the U.S. Senate that they don’t have a blank check from the Congress would be very important."
Trump has played a conspicuously hands-on role in Saudi politics lately after taking a tougher stance during his campaign. He raised bipartisan eyebrows with Tuesday tweets that appeared to cheer the cutoff of diplomatic ties with Qatar by Saudi Arabia and three other nations amid a dispute over support for terrorism. On Wednesday, he proposed a White House meeting to resolve tensions among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Paul questioned focusing on Qatar’s support for armed groups while excluding evidence of similar Saudi behavior, noting that "there’s a lot of history of both Qatar and Saudi Arabia getting weapons to not necessarily the best actors."
Trump’s recent alignment with the Saudi government means the timing of the arms deal vote could work in favor of humanitarian groups and other opponents of the weapons sales that have been imploring senators to send a different message. It’s a reversal of fortune after last year’s vote broke against critics; senators were already preparing to take another tough anti-Saudi stance on a bill that would allow victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack to sue Riyadh.
The Yemeni civil war has long drawn significant concerns beyond the Capitol, with the United Nations envoy to Yemen warning last week that "we are not close" to a necessary peace agreement that would end the violence between Saudi-backed government forces and Houthi rebels. Iran is seen as a backer of the rebels, stoking the war’s intensity as a proxy battle between Tehran and the Saudis.
And as efforts to reach a peace deal continue, some opponents of Trump’s offensive arms sales say that a strong vote for the Paul-Murphy proposal could actually strengthen the president’s hand in future dealings with the Saudi government. (If the vote slips past Thursday, it’s expected to happen by next week thanks to existing law that gives the measure privileged status.)
“The U.S. gets a lot of mileage out of congressional opposition to what the Saudis are doing,” one opponent of the sales said, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity. “Regardless of what the policy is, it helps the administration to have a bad cop. They can walk in and say ‘We’re with you, but we don’t know how Congress is going to react.’”