The Senate voted against a bipartisan resolution to block a $650 million weapons sale to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, rejecting a bid by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and progressive and Republican lawmakers to stop the sale.
The resolution was voted down 67 to 30. Most Republicans voted against the resolution, except for Senators Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Mike Lee (Utah), who had teamed up with Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) and others in the Democratic caucus to introduce the measure. Twenty-one Democrats joined Republicans in voting no.
Advocates of the resolution say the weapons sale will help Saudi Arabia advance its brutal blockade of Yemen, which is at the center of one of the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crises as a result of the war between Houthi rebels and the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition. Although aid groups are attempting to assist the roughly 20.7 million Yemenis — nearly 80 percent of the country’s population — who urgently need humanitarian assistance, the Saudi aerial blockade of the Sanaa airport has been preventing aid from reaching citizens. Meanwhile, Yemen’s economy is on the verge of collapse.
Human rights groups and Yemeni-led advocacy organizations have condemned the weapons sale, and recently sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to pass the resolution. Hassan El-Tayyab, the director of Middle East policy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, told Truthout that approving the arms sale “sends a message of impunity” to Saudi Arabia and removes key leverage that the U.S. could use to end the war.
If Saudi Arabia were to end its blockade on the Sanaa airport, El-Tayyab said, Houthi forces would likely have little motivation to continue cross-border attacks. “For the U.S. to continue the support of Saudi Arabia for their defensive concerns, while not fully embracing the diplomacy needed to lift the blockade and end the aerial bombardment, we are essentially not addressing the root cause of the problem,” El-Tayyab said, adding that so-called “defensive” equipment in the sale could also be used to enforce the blockade.
In a joint statement released by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Ilhan Omar and caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Washington) said the blockade has almost completely blocked medical supplies from entering the war-torn country. The blockade has also “amounted to a death sentence” for Yemenis seeking care abroad, they said.
“The world’s largest humanitarian crisis is escalating. Last month, Saudi Arabia tightened its blockade on Yemen, permitting just 3 percent of the fuel the country needs into Yemen’s major port,” the lawmakers wrote. “Saudi warplanes enforce a blockade on Yemen’s airspace, threatening to shoot down commercial and humanitarian flights.”
Ahead of the vote, the White House released a Statement of Administration Policy — a more forceful version of a regular statement — saying that the administration “strongly opposes” the resolution. This goes against promises Biden made during his presidential campaign, when he vowed to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” in response to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident killed by a team of Saudi agents in 2018.
“I would end the subsidies that we have, end the sale of material to the Saudis, who are going in and they’re murdering children and they’re murdering innocent people, and so they have to be held accountable,” Biden said at the time.
In the statement, the White House claimed that the arms sale will only go toward defensive actions for Saudi Arabia, therefore, it won’t contradict Biden’s previous pledge to help end the war. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), a longtime critic of Saudi Arabia’s role in the war, also voted against blocking the sale, citing the same reasons as the White House.
The arms sale divided the Democratic caucus, with a majority of Democrats lining up against Biden and voting for the resolution.
“The United States must do everything in our power to bring this brutal and horrific war to an end,” Sanders said on the Senate floor before the vote on Tuesday. “Exporting more missiles to Saudi Arabia does nothing but further this conflict and pour more gasoline on an already raging fire.”
“Why in the world would the United States reward such a regime which has caused such pain in Yemen with more weapons?” Sanders asked. “My friends, the answer is we should not.”
Paul also condemned the sale before the vote. “We could stop this war if we really had the will to do it,” Paul said. “All of America should be appalled at the humanitarian disaster caused by the Saudi blockade of Yemen.” When the resolution was introduced, Paul said the sale, if allowed to advance, would send a message to Saudi Arabia that their “reprehensible behavior” should be rewarded.
The U.S. has provided the Saudi-led coalition with billions of dollars in weapons, training and military support, playing an instrumental role in the destruction of Yemen for nearly seven years. Donald Trump in particular was determined to support Saudi Arabia, going so far as to veto several bipartisan measures to stop weapons sales to the country during his tenure. In 2018, Sanders and allied Republicans led the Senate in passing a historic war powers resolution to end the U.S. role in the war, which was not authorized by Congress. The resolution died in the GOP-controlled House.
The $650 million sale will go on despite the wishes of the American public, which largely disapproves of the sale. A Data for Progress poll found that 64 percent of likely voters oppose the sale, with opposition nearly even across political affiliations.