A bipartisan group of senators fell short Tuesday in an effort to block part of President Trump’s arms sale to Saudi Arabia but delivered a symbolic rebuke over what senators said is the indiscriminate use of American-made weapons to kill civilians in Yemen.
The vote was 53 to 47 against an unusual measure that would have held up the sale of more than $500 million in precision-guided munitions. The weapons are used by Saudi Arabia in its war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen.
Human rights groups and the resolution’s sponsors allege that Saudi Arabia uses the technology to target civilians and infrastructure such as roads, bridges and hospitals. By extension, opponents of the sale argue, the United States is contributing to a worsening man-made famine.
“This barbaric nation should not be getting our weapons,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a resolution sponsor, argued to his colleagues ahead of the vote.
Paul charged that Saudi Arabia is helping push 17 million people to the brink of starvation in Yemen while it imprisons, tortures and beheads its political opponents.
“There is probably no greater purveyor of hatred for Christianity and Judaism than Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Some will argue it’s a jobs program. Well, isn’t that swell? We’re going to give weapons to people who behead you and crucify you?”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) argued that blocking the sale would be shortsighted and appeared aimed at complaining about Trump’s foreign policy generally.
“I’m afraid this vote is somewhat about some members wanting to get a piece of President Trump’s hide,” Corker said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), also a sponsored the resolution against the sale, noted the relatively close vote.
“My resolution halting $500m of Saudi arms sale failed 47-53,” he wrote on Twitter. “But 20 more votes than similar resolution last fall. Strong message to Saudis.”
Paul issued a statement promising to “continue to take a stance against waging an undeclared war and fueling an arms race in the Middle East.”
“I applaud those who voted with me to block this proposed arms sale, and I hope this sends a clear message to Saudi Arabia that the United States will not just stand by as they massacre their unarmed neighbors,” Paul said.
In addition to Paul, three other Republicans voted to block the sale: Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Todd C. Young of Indiana and Dean Heller of Nevada. Five Democrats went the other way: Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida and Mark R. Warner of Virginia.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Monday that he would vote against the sale of precision-guided munitions, clearing the way for many other Democrats to follow suit.
Last year, an effort to block a tank sale to Saudi Arabia led by Paul and Murphy garnered the support of 27 senators, four of them Republicans.
The State Department has argued that the guidance systems help Saudi Arabia improve the accuracy of bombs that might otherwise risk greater civilian casualties, although U.S. officials have expressed concern over Saudi targeting.
The Obama administration initially approved the sale, then put it on hold in December over concerns about civilian deaths. The Trump administration revived the deal, and it was touted as part of a massive bundle of current and future arms sales when Trump visited Saudi Arabia last month.
U.S. officials also argue that the oversight that comes with such sales, combined with increased U.S. training and engagement with the Saudi military, gives Washington leverage that it would lose if the sales were halted as a protest.
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.