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House votes to block Trump’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, setting up a likely veto

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with President Trump during a photo session at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, last month. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The House voted Wednesday to undo President Trump’s bid to sidestep Congress and complete several arms sales benefiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sending three disapproval resolutions to the Oval Office, where they are expected to be vetoed.

The Trump administration announced in May that it would invoke emergency authority to push through 22 deals worth more than $8 billion, sales that include missiles, munitions and surveillance aircraft. A bipartisan majority in both the House and Senate — but not a veto-proof majority — objected to the move, which would replenish part of the Saudi arsenal that lawmakers say has been used against civilians in Yemen’s long-running civil war.

Members of both parties also object to the idea of rewarding Saudi leaders at a time when most lawmakers want to punish them for the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

But only four Republicans — Reps. Mike Gallagher (Wis.), Trey Hollingsworth (Ind.), Thomas Massie (Ky.) and Alex Mooney (W.Va.), plus newly independent Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) — joined Democrats to pass the resolutions, which the Senate approved last month.

The Trump administration has insisted that the weapons sales are necessary to counter an increasing threat from Iran, which is suspected in attacks on petrochemical tankers in recent weeks and shot down a U.S. Navy surveillance drone.

House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that the resolutions were an “extraordinary but necessary” step to counteract an “abuse of power,” charging that the Trump administration had created “a phony emergency to override the authority of Congress” to prevent the deals.

Trump has stymied most congressional efforts to punish Saudi Arabia — including a measure this year to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military coalition operating in Yemen. The promise of the president’s continued opposition is complicating lawmakers’ efforts to determine their next move.

The clash is playing out acutely in the GOP-led Senate, where Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) recently unveiled legislation to sanction Saudi leaders allegedly involved in Khashoggi’s killing by denying them U.S. visas — but stopped short of more aggressive steps that Democrats and some Republicans have endorsed.

“You can either have a fig leaf that gives you political cover, or you can really do something,” the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), said in an interview, comparing Risch’s bill to a measure he has penned with a bipartisan group of senators, led by himself and Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.). That bill would couple sanctions on Saudi leaders — including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom U.S. intelligence agencies say ordered Khashoggi’s killing — with a moratorium on transfers of nondefensive weapons to the kingdom.

None of those measures, Risch said, could become law.

“I’m not criticizing Bob [Menendez]. He has a view that he wants to do something stronger than what this bill is, and I agree with him in many respects,” Risch said in an interview. “The difficulty is, it will never become law . . . and I want to have a say about this.”

Democrats are frustrated that Risch is having the committee vote for his and Menendez’s bills separately next week instead of joining forces to deliver GOP leaders a compromise they could force the president to accept. On Wednesday, Menendez accused Risch of breaking a deal they made last month, saying he was trying split the vote and ensure that only the Republican bill — what he called “the weaker one” — would ever make it to the Senate floor.

“It will give Republicans cover to say they did something on Saudi Arabia, they did something on the Khashoggi murder, but without much consequence whatsoever,” Menendez said.

Risch rejected that charge — and the notion that there was any practical room for compromise with Menendez’s legislation.

“My bill is the middle ground. It’s bipartisan. It has been heavily shopped with the administration, both the White House and the State Department. My bill can become law,” he said. “If my bill leaves the committee looking like [Menendez’s] bill, it is not going to become law.”

Democrats may try to amend Risch’s bill next week to make it more like theirs. But if they are successful, Risch said, he would personally advise Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) not to put it on the floor.

“I’m trying to make this committee relevant, to having a voice in foreign relations,” he said. “The way you do that is, you have to have some type of give and take with the second branch of government, who has a lot to say about this. This bill is that product.”