Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., departs the chamber after appealing for lawmakers to vote against more than a dozen resolutions aimed at blocking the Trump administration's sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 20, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales as Trump vows veto

June 20, 2019 - 2:19 pm
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate has voted to block the Trump administration from selling arms to Saudi Arabia, launching a new challenge to President Donald Trump's alliance with the country amid rising tensions in the Middle East.

Trump has promised to veto the measures. The White House said stopping the sales "would send a message that the United States is abandoning its partners and allies at the very moment when threats to them are increasing."

While all the resolutions of disapproval are likely to pass the House, supporters fell well short of a veto-proof margin. Two of the resolutions passed with 53 votes, while another group was approved narrowly, with 51 votes. Overturning a veto requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate.

Overall, there were 22 resolutions, one for each of the individual sales. But most of the resolutions were considered as a package to avoid tying up the Senate with lengthy debates over each of them.

Seven Republicans broke with Trump to reject at least some of the arms sales: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Todd Young of Indiana.

The votes came against the backdrop of heightened U.S. tensions with Iran. Iran shot down a U.S. drone Thursday, a move Trump declared "a very big mistake." Congressional leaders received a closed-door briefing on the situation at the Capitol and were invited to the White House in the afternoon the meet with Trump.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited threats from Iran when declaring an emergency to approve the weapons sales in May. The Saudis have recently faced a number of attacks from Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

"To reject these sales at this time and under these circumstances is to reward recent Iranian aggression and to encourage further Iranian escalation," said Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Risch added that blocking the sale would also "encourage miscalculation on the part of Iranians which will be disastrous."

The arms sales, worth an estimated $8 billion, included precision guided munitions, other bombs and ammunition and aircraft maintenance support.

Opposition in Congress to close U.S. Saudi ties escalated after the killing of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the kingdom last year. But a small group of lawmakers has been voicing concern about the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen for years.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the war in Yemen was one reason for his opposition to the arms sales.

"These are bombs that we know have killed thousands of civilians in Yemen, patients in hospitals, children on school buses," Menendez said. The conflict in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians and left millions more are on the brink of starvation. Menendez called the humanitarian situation "an incomprehensible moral tragedy."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., delivered an impassioned speech from the Senate floor criticizing Saudi Arabia's behavior as personally "disrespectful."

"My relationship with Saudi Arabia is forever changed," he said, accusing the Kingdom of taking their relationship with the U.S. "for granted" and caring more about "maintaining power at all costs," than their alliance.

"You've lost me, and that's too bad," he said.

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