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Congress failed to block the sale of missiles to Saudi Arabia. Why?

Just voting on the measure helps draw Americans’ attention to the Saudi role in Yemen’s war

- December 23, 2021

In December, the Senate voted 67-30 to halt a measure that would have blocked a $650 million sale of advanced medium range air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia. Sponsored by a bipartisan coalition of senators, the joint resolution of disapproval was intended to push Saudi Arabia to end its intervention in the ongoing civil war in Yemen — a conflict that the U.S. has engaged in via support for the Saudi-led coalition.

My research looks at how a coalition of advocates and members of Congress have used arms sales and other types of legislation as a way for lawmakers to weigh in directly on the U.S.-Saudi security partnership as well as U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen.

Legislative efforts, among other factors, have helped shift the policy debate — President Biden, in his first foreign policy speech this year, declared that the U.S. would end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” The Biden administration later argued that this sale is consistent with Biden’s pledge to end “offensive support” for the coalition, while continuing to provide for Saudi defense.

Opponents of arming Saudi Arabia were disappointed with the Dec. 7 vote. But the failure of the resolution belies the significance of the effort: Congressional legislation is one of the few ways that Americans can become democratically engaged around U.S. security policies, and this bill shows a path toward greater such public involvement.

Here’s how the measure went down

The joint resolution of disapproval, S.J. Res. 31, faced long odds. Under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA), the executive branch must notify Congress of an impending foreign military sale to most countries when that sale is worth more than $14 million. Once the executive branch notifies Congress, legislators have just 30 days to vote to block the sale. Congress has never successfully blocked a proposed arms sale in this way.

Under AECA rules, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can’t block a resolution to stop the sale from heading to the Senate floor. Nor can opponents of the measure filibuster a vote to consider or pass the measure — this means that resolutions of disapproval only require a simple majority vote to succeed.

But presidents can veto a resolution of disapproval, and then two-thirds of both the Senate and House would have to vote to override the veto. In 2019, House and Senate majorities voted to block the arms sale to Saudi Arabia, but neither chamber could override a veto by President Trump.

Congressional debate can help to shift the public conversation

Congressional efforts to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia in recent years suggest that even failed efforts can change the nature of policy debates around the U.S.-Saudi relationship — and the war in Yemen.

In my research for a forthcoming book on the U.S. approach to the war in Yemen, I interviewed members of the coalition that helped pass the 2019 bill, including lobbyists from nongovernmental organizations and congressional staffers. This advocacy coalition was able to use the legislative procedures laid out in the AECA, as well as legislation invoking the War Powers Resolution, to generate a public conversation about the U.S. role in Yemen’s war and to encourage Congress to seek answers from the administration.

That’s a noticeable development. In the early years of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention, few policymakers, and few Americans, knew that the United States was providing logistical and intelligence support for the coalition. This support included aerial refueling for coalition aircraft carrying out bombings that killed thousands of civilians. Polling in early December revealed that 64 percent of likely U.S. voters opposed the air-to-air missile sale.

“One of the best ways to create moments [of change in Congress] is to force a vote,” Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), told me. “If members of Congress are going to have to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on an issue, that creates an opportunity for education and discussion,” he said. Staffers must prep their bosses ahead of a vote, building greater knowledge of the issue in Congress. Having a bill on the floor also gives advocates a chance to organize grass roots constituents to call and visit congressional offices.

Legislation is a way to apply pressure

As the 2019 effort to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia gained momentum, the legislation became a way to pressure the Trump administration to change its approach to Yemen. It also placed direct pressure on Saudi and Emirati leaders to shift their approach. Some analysts believe U.S. congressional pressure played an important role in the UAE decision to draw down its forces from Yemen in 2019.

Pressure from Congress also gave U.S. officials leverage in discussions with Saudi and Emirati officials: a State Department official told the Senate in 2018 that congressional pressure had “been exceedingly helpful in allowing the Administration to send a message from whole of government.”

That pressure, in turn, had meaningful effects on the war itself. Following public statements from the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia decided to allow cranes into Hodeidah port in January 2018 to alleviate dire humanitarian shortages, and came to the table at the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement.

And legislative action also helped shift the terms of the domestic debate about U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. In past years, few members of Congress were willing to question the foundations of the U.S.-Saudi security partnership. While the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 brought more of the public and members of Congress on board, the terms of the debate had begun to shift even before then. A joint resolution to block an arms sale gained only 27 Senate votes in its favor in September 2016, for example, but a similar vote held less than a year later, in June 2017 (before the Khashoggi murder), won 47 votes.

The December 2021 bill likely won fewer votes this time around because a number of Democratic senators who had supported past efforts weren’t willing to vote against a Democratic administration. Like the 2019 bill, this one won’t become law. But the vote puts the plight of Yemen back into the spotlight and highlights the ongoing U.S. role in arming the Saudis to prolong the conflict.

Alexandra Stark (@alexmstark) is a senior researcher at New America.