Senators allowed President Joe Biden to sell $650 million in weapons to Saudi Arabia, voting down a measure on Tuesday that would have blocked the controversial plan over human rights and national security concerns.
The vote is a setback for proponents of a more progressive foreign policy who say the president should take a tougher stance on the Saudis in line with his 2020 campaign promises. The Biden administration justified the arms deal by saying it was intended for defensive purposes since the package does not include air-to-ground bombs ― and argued that it has taken other steps to pressure Saudi Arabia, such as publicly criticizing the kingdom’s excesses and pushing diplomacy to end the brutal Saudi military intervention in Yemen.
30-67, senators endorsed Biden’s line and rejected legislation from Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would have torpedoed the proposal.
The bill’s supporters, including influential rights groups and activists wary of the Saudis, knew they faced an uphill battle. Though many top Democrats continue to condemn Saudi behavior, the party’s most powerful foreign policy figures are sympathetic to the argument that the longtime U.S. partner should be shielded from outside attacks and that the missile package would also protect U.S. troops and citizens in the kingdom.
Advocates for reforming the U.S.-Saudi relationship say they see other opportunities to force Riyadh to improve its behavior and are heartened that lawmakers from both parties are still interested in such ideas ― including limiting weapons transfers.
Biden aides have “made this argument that this is defensive equipment, and the fact that there are still members of Congress willing to push back on the sale means that for them that’s not enough,” Seth Binder of the Project on Middle East Democracy told HuffPost last week. “If there were attempts to move forward with things that were clearly seen as more offensive, you would quickly see them return” to voting against the president.