House votes to block Trump administration's weapons deal with Saudi Arabia amid veto threat

Deirdre Shesgreen
The vote highlights backlash against a weapons deal for $8.1 billion in bombs, precision-guided missiles and other weapons to the Saudis and its allies.

WASHINGTON – The House approved legislation Wednesday to block President Trump from selling U.S.-made weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, triggering a high-profile confrontation with the White House over the controversial transaction.

The vote, on a package of three bills, showcased the bipartisan backlash against a pending deal to send $8.1 billion in bombs, precision-guided missiles, ammunition and other arms to the Saudis and its Middle East partners. The measures would halt the imminent shipment of 124,000 precision-guided missiles and the fuses to detonate them.

A handful of Republicans and one Independent joined most Democrats in supporting the measures, despite a White House veto threat.  

Democrats in particular have expressed deep concern over the Trump administration's pro-Saudi policies, even as the kingdom has engaged in series of high-profile human rights violations – including the slaying of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Lawmakers have also grown increasingly alarmed by the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians and created a horrific humanitarian crisis. 

"Reckless doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s gruesome," Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said of the Saudis conduct in the war. One Saudi airstrike killed 40 children in a school bus, with a U.S.-made bomb.

The U.S. cannot give Saudi Arabia "a blank check ... to drop bombs on schoolchildren," Engel said. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the $8.1 billion weapons deal last month and said the administration would sidestep the normal congressional approval process by declaring a national security emergency. Pompeo said threats from Iran, a foe of both the United States and Saudi Arabia, justified the decision to bypass congressional review.

Engel and others blasted that as a "phony emergency" used to make an end-run around Congress. 

But most Republicans defended the arms sales as vital to helping the Saudis, the UAE and Jordan as vital to curbing Iran, which is supporting the Houthi rebels in the Yemen conflict. 

"Iran is stretching its tentacles of terror across the Middle East," said Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He said the U.S. needs to push back on Iran by supporting its allies in the region and helping them defend themselves against Iranian aggression.

"This irresponsible resolution handcuffs our ability to do so," said McCaul, of Texas.

The GOP-led Senate has already passed the three bills, which will now go to Trump's desk. (The Senate adopted a broader package that would nix the entire $8.1 billion deal). It's unlikely supporters can muster the congressional super-majority that would be needed to override an anticipated Trump veto.

The White House has argued the measures would jeopardize the U.S.-Saudi alliance, a cornerstone of the Trump administration's campaign to isolate Iran.

"Apart from negatively affecting our bilateral relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the joint resolution would hamper our ability to sustain and shape critical security cooperation activities and would significantly hinder the interoperability between our nations," the White House said in a statement earlier this year. "Additionally, the joint resolution would impact our partner’s ability to deter and defend against Iranian military aggression."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: House votes to bar Trump administration from arms sale to Saudi Arabia