WASHINGTON — The Senate Wednesday rejected a bipartisan proposal to block a pending $1.15 billion United States arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
Critics of the military deal, which was approved by the Obama administration last month, complained it could drag the US into the Saudi-led war in Yemen and contribute to the worsening humanitarian crisis there.
The measure to disapprove the sale failed on a 26-71 vote.
The outcome, which was a victory for Saudi Arabia, came as the US-Saudi relationship is being carefully examined and managed by restive lawmakers.
Congress will vote in the coming days in favor of another highly sensitive matter the Saudis strongly oppose. Lawmakers are expected to override President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill that would allow victims and families of the 9/11 terrorist strikes to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in them.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell , R-Kentucky, aware of the potentially conflicting signals Congress is sending the Saudis, cited the importance of strong US-Saudi ties in explaining why he voted against the blocking the sale.
“I oppose that motion because I believe it would harm our nation’s long term strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East,” he said. “It would further damage our alliance and partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at a time when our moderate Sunni Arab allies are questioning whether our nation is able to meet our traditional commitment to the region. The resolution would also ignore the shared interests we have with Saudi Arabia in combatting al Qaeda and ISIL.”
A coalition of liberal and conservative senators pushed the resolution to scrap the sale.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, argued that by selling tanks and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia the US is essentially joining the war in Yemen without congressional authorization.
“We are complicit and actively involved with war in Yemen. There’s been no debate in Congress, really no debate in the public sphere, over whether or not we should be at war in Yemen,” Paul said. “We are currently doing inflight refueling of bombers, Saudi Arabian bombers that are bombing in Yemen. We are helping to select sites and we actually have had Special Forces involved in these decisions in the theatre as well.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, warned America would be blamed for humanitarian disaster in Yemen and could lead to a backlash against the US.
“There have already been thousands and thousands of civilians killed,” said Murphy. “If you talk to Yemenis, they will tell you that this is perceived inside Yemen as not a Saudi-led bombing campaign, which it’s broadly advertised in the newspapers, but as a US bombing campaign or at best a US-Saudi bombing campaign. There is a US imprint on every civilian death inside Yemen, which is radicalizing the people this country against the United States.”
Senior GOP senators active in foreign policy matters — such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, opposed blocking the sale. They argued that a strong Saudi Arabia provides a critical counterweight to the aspirations of Iran in the Middle East.
“The Middle East is a very complicated place,” Graham said. “But here’s what’s not complicated: Saudi Arabia shared intelligence with us that’s made Americans safe. They have allowed us to use their air bases in time of conflict. They are all-in against ISIS and they are a great ally against the ambitions of the Iranians. To those who wish to sever the this relationship, be careful what you wish for.”