President Donald Trump emerged victorious in one last battle with Congress over his push for massive arms sales to the Middle East after the Senate failed to block a $23 billion sale to the United Arab Emirates.
A couple of Democrats joined all but one Republican to sink two resolutions Wednesday that would have blocked the sale to UAE of armed drones and the F-35, the most advanced U.S. fighter jet, which were a key part of Trump's deal to secure Emirati recognition of Israel.
That deal, known as the Abraham Accords, has been welcomed by Republicans and Democrats as historic, but many lawmakers warned against the unprecedented delivery of such high-tech weaponry to an Arab partner in the Middle East and accused the administration of rushing the sales through in Trump's lame-duck session.
The White House had threatened to veto the resolutions, warning, "Legislation like these resolutions could, without further examination, have unintended consequences for defense procurement and interoperability between the United States and our partners, and could create diplomatic and security opportunities for our adversaries to exploit."
Lobbying, including by Israeli officials and former senior national security officials, was enough to keep Republicans in line, even though the resolutions had bipartisan support.
Long a critic of Middle East arms sales, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky joined two senior Democrats, Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in crafting the legislation. But in the end, no Republicans joined him, and Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona broke with her party to vote against both resolutions. Her colleague Mark Kelly, Arizona's new Democratic senator, voted against the resolution on armed drones, but in favor of the F-35 resolution.
While the effort failed, Murphy said the fight is not over and that he's "eager to work with the incoming administration to take a closer look at each of these sales before any transfers are completed."
If it passed, the resolutions would have set Trump up for his third veto related to U.S. support for UAE or Saudi Arabia, whose coalition is fighting against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen that are increasingly backed by Iran. That air campaign was been accused of war crimes by the United Nations for killing civilians and targeting civilian infrastructure.
Majorities in both chambers of Congress have taken steps to curtail U.S. support. In April 2019, Congress voted to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-Emirati coalition and, three months later, to block another massive arms sales to both countries. Trump pushed that $8 billion deal, including smart bombs, through with an emergency authority that bypassed congressional review.
After Trump used his veto power in both cases, Congress was unable to secure the two-thirds majorities to override him.
In addition to their airstrikes in Yemen, the UAE has also been accused of passing U.S. military equipment along to militias on the ground in the war-torn country, a violation of U.S. arms policy that engendered particular outrage because it allegedly included Islamist extremist groups. The country is also accused of violating the United Nations arms embargo on Libya, where a civil war has been fueled by outside weapons from Turkey, Russia and others as well -- something the U.S. has repeatedly condemned.
"Why reward the UAE with this massive unprecedented arms sale when we can't be sure how they're going to use those weapons or whether they're going to actually stay in the hands of the UAE?" Murphy told Yahoo News Friday. "That, in and of itself, I think is a reason to press pause on the sale."
The State Department briefed Murphy and other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week in a classified meeting to try to dispel some of those concerns, but two Senate aides told ABC News that lawmakers left with too many unanswered questions still.
"Just a mind blowing number of unsettled issues and questions the Administration couldn't answer. Hard to overstate the danger of rushing this (through)," Murphy tweeted afterwards.
One of the briefers, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper pushed back on Murphy and others' arguments on Tuesday, saying the Emiratis have "proved themselves over and over again" to be a "partner that we could count on."
If the sales were blocked, he warned, the UAE will turn to China or Russia, which would hurt the U.S.
Complicating the effort to sink the sales was Israel's support for them. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Monday with Emirati Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba to promote the deal, saying, "We strongly believe that this agreement, this arms package, will not violate America's commitment or undermine the commitment to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge."