WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Thursday he wants to move forward with major arms deals with Saudi Arabia, but senators from both parties are warning that Congress may block these accords from going forward.
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced in June he would place a hold on a proposed arms sale on thousands of precision-guided munition kits that would be used by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On Thursday, Menendez warned he would not back off in light of the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Right now, it’s not moving forward because I’ve stopped it through our procedures,” he told reporters in the Capitol. “If I were to clear it and it were to move to the floor, I think there’s a growing sense that there has to be a message to the Saudis.”
Menendez’s hold is significant because the chair and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee have the power to derail foreign arms sales under the congressional notification process. One of the four members can place a hold on an arms sale and effectively extend a 40-day informal review process the administration affords to Congress.
If Menendez were to lift his hold, then a 30-day formal review process begins when any member can file a resolution of disapproval to seek to block the arms sale. Congress would then vote on the resolution of disapproval. And with tensions high with Saudi Arabia, members from both parties say that any arms deal with the Saudis almost certainly would be rejected by Congress.
“There’s been a hold for a long time,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, of Tennessee, told CNN. “I told the defense contractor who was in my office a few weeks ago don’t even attempt to make this happen right now because it will get voted down. Now with (the disappearance of Khashoggi), obviously that’s the case.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, of Texas, said “it’s premature” to say whether Congress would move to block arm sales to the Saudis, saying “we just need to make sure we know what the facts are before deciding how to act.”
Trump has indicated that Saudi Arabia is likely behind Khashoggi’s disappearance, but signaled Wednesday that he is reluctant to take action, particularly on the issue of arms sales.
“That would be hurting us,” Trump told Fox News when asked about the option of blocking the sale of weapons.
“We have jobs,” Trump said on Fox News. “We have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before. Part of that is what we are doing with our defense systems and everybody is wanting them, and frankly, I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”
In May, Trump announced in Riyadh an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $110 billion.
The agreement was negotiated by the President’s son in law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, whose closeness to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been scrutinized in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance.
While the overall deal was worth $110 billion, specific arms deals like the munitions package currency being held up by Congress have been finalized in much smaller agreements.
Last year, the Senate narrowly voted to support a $510 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, defeating a resolution to block the sale in a 47-to-53 vote.
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