Democratic lawmakers are challenging President Joe Biden’s plan to sell $650 million in missiles to Saudi Arabia, sparking a new fight over Biden’s failure to fulfill his campaign promises to reform American foreign policy.
On Friday, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) will introduce a joint resolution that Congress could pass to block the arms deal, she told HuffPost. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a prominent voice on national security issues, told HuffPost he would support her bid. Omar’s plan and Khanna’s support for it have not been previously reported.
And on Wednesday, a group of seven leading Democrats ― including powerful committee chairmen Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) ― issued a statement on the sale, saying Biden is doing too little to end the Saudis’ brutal military intervention in Yemen.
“It is simply unconscionable to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia while they continue to slaughter innocent people and starve millions in Yemen, kill and torture dissidents, and support modern-day slavery,” Omar told HuffPost on Wednesday. “We should never be selling human rights abusers weapons, but we certainly should not be doing so in the midst of a humanitarian crisis they are responsible for. Congress has the authority to stop these sales, and we must exercise that power.”
Biden’s critics want him to get tougher with the Saudis over their ongoing campaign in Yemen, where crippling import restrictions have fueled mass starvation, and over Saudi officials’ murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Before he became president, Biden pledged to hold Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman accountable for Khashoggi’s assassination and to end the Yemen war. Biden has since rebuked only low-level Saudis over the killing.
And while Biden has frozen some weapons shipments that the Saudis had hoped to use in Yemen and has jump-started diplomacy to stop the fighting, he has approved the $650 million missile sale and a separate $500 million military support deal, as well as continued U.S. support for Saudi airstrikes.
Last month, a career State Department official told HuffPost the president’s team seems to have “lost” the Khashoggi file. Meanwhile, bin Salman’s regime has continued to violently target its opponents at home and internationally.
Members of Congress and human rights activists hope a stir on Capitol Hill will pressure Biden to use U.S. leverage to rein in Riyadh.
“I can’t understand how we would even contemplate [the sale] before they end their involvement in the Yemen war, before they lift the blockade [on Yemen] and before there’s some consequences for MBS,” said Khanna, using a colloquial term for the crown prince.
Omar’s bill would prohibit the transfer of the missiles and could force lawmakers to go on the record with their views on the deal ― potentially embarrassing Biden if a sizable number of Democrats vote against the sale or if there’s backlash against those who do vote for the sale.
She can only advance her proposal in the House of Representatives, however, which cannot halt an arms sale on its own. For her plan to bear fruit, Omar will need an ally in the Senate to introduce matching legislation soon, as Congress only has 30 days to weigh in on a weapons deal after it receives official notification from the State Department. The review period for Biden’s offer for the Saudis ends on Dec. 4.
Schiff and his allies did not commit to opposing the missile sale, noting that the Saudis could use the equipment against attacks by the Houthis, the pro-Iran militia they are fighting in Yemen that also opposes the U.S.
But those lawmakers said they want to “strengthen” measures to restrict U.S. support for Saudi Arabia that could be part of this year’s defense authorization bill. The defense bill will be finalized in the coming weeks, and Biden does not want it to be derailed ― so by keeping the Saudi-related ideas in the bill, Democrats could force the president to rebuke Riyadh. The survival of those restrictions depends on ongoing negotiations between top legislators in the House and Senate.
“While the [Biden] administration has suspended offensive weapons sales, it continues to provide logistical support and spare parts that permit an escalation of offensive Saudi Air Force operations in Yemen. That needs to stop,” read the joint statement from Schiff, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) and other prominent Democrats.
Biden is currently trying to persuade OPEC, the global cartel of oil-producing nations, to increase its production to reduce petrol prices. Saudi Arabia is one of that group’s most powerful members, and U.S. officials are wary of angering Riyadh.
Still, the Saudis have known for years that many Washington policymakers want to trim U.S. military assistance to the kingdom, and Biden is continuing to press the kingdom over Yemen through actions like dispatching his special envoy for the conflict to the region this week.
Additionally, the Saudis have their own incentives to pump more oil because of their strategy of trying to protect their income through expanding their market share rather than relying on sudden price increases.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
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