The Senate on Tuesday defeated a bipartisan bid to block about $500 million in President Donald Trump’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with four Republicans joining most Democrats to rein in the weapons deals.
The effort to stop the weapons sales, authored by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), fell short on a 47-53 vote, with five Democrats voting to preserve deals that humanitarian groups have warned risk exacerbating the violent civil war in Yemen.
Still, Paul and Murphy fared much better on Tuesday than they did last year in a similar effort to block a Saudi arms sale under former President Barack Obama, thanks entirely to new Democratic supporters.
"Regardless of whether the number is 48 or 51 or 45" in favor of blocking the deals, Murphy told reporters before the vote, "this is an important message to the Saudis that we are all watching. And if they continue to target civilians and they continue to stop humanitarian aid from getting into Yemen, this vote will continue to go in the wrong direction for them."
Paul said after the vote that he and Murphy would discuss possible future attempts to block Trump’s arms deals to Riyadh, warning that senators are growing more concerned about the civilian toll in a Yemen conflict that is pitting Saudi-backed government forces against rebel factions reportedly supported by Iran.
Before that happens, Paul told reporters, "there needs to be a period of time to see if there’s a change in Saudi warfare tactics."
Senior Republicans who opposed the effort by Paul and Murphy warned that stopping the weapons sales would risk imperiling more lives in the Middle East and unnecessarily hurt U.S.-Saudi relations.
"There is no classified intelligence that shows they have ever intentionally bombed civilians — as a matter of fact, intelligence down there shows that they didn’t," Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters before the vote, describing the attempted blockade of the sales as "cutting your nose off to spite your face."
In addition to Paul, two GOP senators who cast a similar vote against Obama’s Saudi deal also voted Tuesday to stop Trump: Dean Heller of Nevada and Mike Lee of Utah. Freshman Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) also voted to block the sales.
Young is a cosponsor of separate legislation by Paul and Murphy that would set humanitarian conditions on any forthcoming arms sales to Saudi Arabia in an effort to resolve the bloody Yemeni civil war.
Five Democrats voted against the arms deal blockade, which fell four votes short of passing: Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner.
Despite the effort’s failure, international aid groups and arms-control advocates cheered Paul and Murphy for coming close.
"Only a political settlement can resolve the issues driving Yemen’s humanitarian crisis," Oxfam senior humanitarian policy adviser Scott Paul said in a statement. "Rather than back the Saudis in a long war that endangers the lives of millions, the Trump administration should use all of its influence to push the parties toward peace.”