The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate does not override Trump’s vetoes of Saudi measures as chances of sanctions dim

President Trump meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on March 20, 2018.
President Trump meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on March 20, 2018. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images/file)

The Senate on Monday did not override President Trump’s vetoes of three measures to block arms deals benefiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, an expected but nonetheless serious setback for those who had hoped Congress would punish Saudi leaders for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The votes came just days after Senate Foreign Relations Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) declared that efforts to pass a Saudi sanctions bill were “over.” A bipartisan group of senators on the panel had insisted on stiff punitive measures that Risch said would never pass muster with Trump.

“Given that the bill that came out [of committee] can’t become law, we’re all spinning our wheels here,” he said.

The threat of Trump’s veto has cast a shadow over Congress’s recent efforts to exact a price from Saudi Arabia for its role in Yemen’s civil war, which human rights organizations and lawmakers say has worsened civilian suffering. Attempts to curtail U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen, and to prevent the Trump administration from circumventing Congress to expedite the sale of weapons that Saudi Arabia has used in its war-torn neighbor, have garnered bipartisan majorities in Congress but have not gained the support needed to overcome the president’s vetoes.

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

On Monday, only six Republican senators joined Democrats to try to block the arms deal resolution, the first of which was defeated by a vote of 45 to 40, the second by a vote of 45 to 39 and the third by a vote of 46 to 41. Those totals are far short of the 67 “yes” votes the resolutions’ supporters needed — along with two-thirds of the House — to overcome Trump’s vetoes.

Seven Democrats missed the vote, including six who are running for president and are gathering in Detroit for their second primary debate. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) is the only presidential hopeful in the Senate who was present for the votes, casting his in favor of overriding the vetoes.

But the lack of overall support for the measures reflects a pervasive split in the Republican Party about how forcefully its members are willing to challenge Trump’s embrace of Saudi leaders. Although the Senate voted unanimously last year to condemn Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Republicans have shied away from endorsing sanctions on the kingdom with similar solidarity.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), one of the GOP’s most vocal critics of Saudi behavior, said that Republicans might be more willing to support a direct sanctions measure than resolutions aimed at constraining the president’s actions.

Graham, along with Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), wrote the bipartisan sanctions that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorsed last week over Risch’s objections.

Trump vetoes Congress’s attempt to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Their measure would impose a moratorium on all nondefensive arms transfers to Saudi Arabia — effectively covering the same territory as some of the arms sales resolutions Trump vetoed. It also would impose sanctions on Saudi leaders involved in Khashoggi’s death, including the crown prince, who U.S. intelligence has determined was apprised of or directed the killing.

Risch, who sponsored a bill that would have imposed travel sanctions on Saudi leaders deemed responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, but stopped short of naming the crown prince, warned that the bipartisan legislation is “gonna get vetoed.” He yanked his own bill after the Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee, along with Graham, Young, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), voted to amend their sanctions into his measure.

The decision reflected the supporters’ conviction that Congress should aim for “a bill that has serious consequences,” as Menendez put it, as opposed to Risch’s advice that Congress work on legislation that could get buy-in from the administration.

In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing, Saudi influence machine whirs on in Washington

Graham’s best recent estimate was that the Senate might be able to rally 60 lawmakers in support of the bill — enough to get over any procedural hurdles, but not enough to withstand a veto. But with Risch pledging to advise Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) not to put the legislation on the floor, supporters may never know how many senators would vote for it.

Menendez has refused to accept the recent developments as a death knell, recalling how in 2017, a bill to impose additional sanctions on Russia also seemed a distant possibility.

That measure, known as CAATSA, “had a challenge, too, and it ended up having a moment in which it became law,” Menendez said in an interview. “And so, you know, we’re going to have to find the right moment, but we will at some point create a challenge to bring the bill to the floor.”