on the hill

Senate shuts down effort to block arms sale to Saudi Arabia

Supporters of the sale frame it primarily as a defensive measure against missile and drone attacks into Saudi Arabia

AFP via Getty Images

A joint Saudi-backed Sudanese-Yemeni military experts force removes and deactivates some 5,000 landmines on January 30, 2021, which they said were planted by the Iran-aligned Huthi rebels in Yemen's northern coastal town of Midi.

The Senate voted on Tuesday night against an effort to block a sale of $650 million in air-to-air missiles and related equipment to Saudi Arabia. Thirty senators, nearly all of them Democrats, voted in support of efforts to block the sale.

Both the White House — which supports the sale despite President Joe Biden’s past criticisms of the Saudi regime and his campaign-trail pledge not to support further arms sales — and the sale’s supporters in Congress framed the packages as a defensive measure to counter drone and missile attacks from the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. 

The vote comes as the Saudi government calls for additional U.S. support, beyond the arms sale, against regional threats.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), one of the Senate Democrats who voted in support of the sale, echoed the Biden administration’s justifications. 

“The weapons up for discussion today are being used in this context to defend against these aerial attacks. As air-to-air missiles, they are largely incapable of attacking civilian targets or infrastructure, a critical factor in my decision to support this sale,” he said during debate on the measure. “And while some have argued they could be used to support the Saudi blockade, the fact is that most humanitarian aid is delivered via land and sea.”

Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) said the need for weapons came as a result of Iran’s efforts in the region, noting that Iranian leaders “are the ones that are stoking this fire.”

The effort to block the sale was led by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The other 27 senators who opposed the sale were Democrats.

Acknowledging that the Houthis have been launching attacks into Saudi Arabia, Sanders said, “I am aware that ending U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal assault will not alone end the multi-sided conflict in Yemen.”

“The United States must do everything in our power to bring this brutal and horrific war to an end. Exporting more missiles to Saudi Arabia does nothing but further this conflict and pour more gasoline on [an] already raging fire,” he continued. “My simple question is, Why in the world would the United States reward such a regime, which has caused such pain in Yemen, with more weapons?”

Paul, a frequent opponent of foreign arms sales, has also been the only senator standing in the way of a bill providing an additional $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Sanders attempted earlier this year to stop a $735 million sale of arms to Israel.

Opponents of the Saudi arms sale also included some vocal supporters of military aid to Israel, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).