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Senators Aim To Block Trump's $8 Billion Arm Sales To Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan


Some senators are trying to rein in the power of the president. Ultimate power may rest with Congress, but day to day, the president acts while Congress struggles to react. Some senators now want to undo $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and others. The administration bypassed Congress by declaring a national emergency. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has a simple explanation for why he's helping lead the attempt to block the administration's emergency arms sales authorizations.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: What happened in Saudi Arabia can't be condoned.

WELNA: Graham has been a big supporter of President Trump, but he's been critical when it comes to the October murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a death Graham blames on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials, MBS.

GRAHAM: I'm usually on the other side of this issue. I've been very supportive of arms sales to our partners throughout the world, including Saudi Arabia. But MBS behavior is a game changer.

WELNA: Such major arms sales would normally require prior review by Congress but not so under Trump's national emergency declaration.

ROBERT MENENDEZ: We need the administration to recalibrate, take a step back, rescind its decision.

WELNA: That's New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez. He's pushing 22 resolutions of disapproval in the Senate, one for each arms deal. Menendez put those deals on hold a year ago, citing reports of Saudi and Emirati warplanes bombing civilians in Yemen. The U.N. considers Yemen the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Menendez is well aware that should the disapproval resolutions pass the Senate, 67 votes would be needed to override a likely presidential veto.

MENENDEZ: I'm not sure that we can get there. But I think two things will have been made clear no matter what. One is that a bipartisan majority of the Senate disapproves of both the sales and the policy as it relates to what's happening in Yemen, the lack of action on the Khashoggi killing - and preserving the institutional prerogatives of the Senate in this regard as a check and balance with this or any other administration.

WELNA: Trump, for his part, has consistently pushed for more weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Speaking two weeks after the Khashoggi murder, Trump defended Saudi arms sales by dramatically overstating their value.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have 450 billion dollars' worth of things ordered from a very rich country, Saudi Arabia - 600,000 jobs, maybe more than that.

WELNA: In fact, industry experts estimate such sales would be worth just over $100 billion and generate, at most, 40,000 American jobs. And parts of the precision-guided bombs being sold to Saudi Arabia will be made there under a deal with arms manufacturer Raytheon. Democratic lawmakers had already expressed concern about the Trump administration's approving the transfer of nuclear know-how to Saudi Arabia. Tim Kaine is a Democratic senator from Virginia.

TIM KAINE: Why are they doing so many sweetheart deals with Saudi Arabia? What they are doing is escalating tensions in a very dangerous part of the world.

WELNA: The House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding its own hearing this week on Trump's emergency decree for the arms sales. Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy expects such pushback will continue.

CHRIS MURPHY: I have a sneaking suspicion, one way or the other, Congress is going to do something big on Saudi arms sales. Even if we can't get 67 for these resolutions, I think that appropriations bills are going to have some language restricting arms sales.

WELNA: Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation that cut off all military aid for the war in Yemen. But that failed to overcome a presidential veto. The disapproval resolutions, should they pass, could well meet the same fate. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.