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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Congress Pushes Oversight of Saudi Arms Transfers

By Katherine Gypson June 12, 2019

A growing number of U.S. Democratic and Republican lawmakers are expressing concern about the Trump administration's emergency certification of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. Senate could vote as early as next week on resolutions blocking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's May 24 announcement of $8.1 billion in arms transfers "to deter Iranian aggression and build partner self-defense capacity." The transfers include the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

A top House Democrat said Wednesday that he would use "every possible avenue" to stop the action. The Trump administration "employed an obscure and rarely used provision of the law to declare a phony emergency, ram these sales through and undercut Congress' ability to carry out its oversight role," said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

Four House Democrats filed resolutions Wednesday afternoon that, if passed, would block the licenses required for the sales to move ahead.

Engel said a true emergency would have required an immediate delivery of weapons relevant to the current threat. Instead, he noted, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the threat had diminished.

The push by the House Foreign Affairs Committee comes amid a broader effort by House leadership to assert Congress' role as a co-equal branch of government, fulfilling its constitutional duties in providing checks and balances on the executive branch.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump vetoed a bipartisan congressional resolution ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen. Lawmakers from both parties have also repeatedly expressed concern about Saudi Arabia's role in the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

In testimony before the House panel, a State Department official defended the administration's support of Saudi Arabia in opposition to Iran.

"Timing certainly was at the essence in regard to sending a message," R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said Wednesday.

Cooper pushed back on criticism that the deal skirted congressional authority, telling lawmakers, "The secretary's action is an affirmation of the value we place on our engagement with you on arms transfers and broader security assistance." He said the arms sales would also help reduce civilian casualties in Yemen through U.S. training and more precisely directed weaponry.

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that while he supported efforts to help Yemen's U.N.-backed government against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, he was "also troubled by the numerous civilian deaths in this war, including from coalition airstrikes. I firmly believe we can support our strategic partners while also insisting that they prosecute that war more responsibly."

McCaul said Congress should have been consulted on the arms transfer, telling Cooper, "The recent use of this emergency authority, in my judgment, was unfortunate."

In a statement introducing legislation that would block the arms sales, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., said, "Aiding and abetting Saudi Arabia's horrific attacks on civilians in Yemen is unconscionable. We should demand better from countries that purport to be our allies. The president is once again trying to circumvent the law to do something the American people oppose. Congress needs to step up and prevent this from happening."

Four Republican co-sponsors have joined the Senate effort to block the arms sales, giving the resolutions of disapproval enough support to pass with the votes of all 47 Senate Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters Tuesday that while he was disturbed by the Khashoggi slaying, "the relationship we have with the Saudis, one of our best allies against our Iranian enemies, is important."

But, he added, the bipartisan effort to force a vote on resolutions blocking the arms sales is within Senate rules. The support of the four Senate Republicans would not be enough for the measures to overcome an expected presidential veto.

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