U.S. lawmakers still plot to push Saudi Arabia on rights, despite Trump

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress left Washington on Thursday without enacting legislation to punish Saudi human rights abuses, but lawmakers said efforts to stop military sales and impose sanctions would continue after their August break.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) walks to a news conference to discuss immigration legislation and the U.S.-Mexico border on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“I’ll just keep trying to find ways forward,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Reuters at the Capitol on Thursday, days after the Senate failed to override President Donald Trump’s veto of three resolutions that would have stopped the sale of Raytheon Co precision-guided munitions (PGMs) to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

There are several other pieces of legislation - including 18 more resolutions to block weapons sales - making their way through the Senate or House of Representatives as some lawmakers still hope to push Trump toward stronger action against Riyadh.

Critics of Trump’s close ties to Saudi Arabia also want the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, a must-pass annual bill setting policy for the Pentagon, to include provisions to suspend military sales to Saudi Arabia and limit Trump’s ability to declare “emergencies” in order to sidestep Congress’ review of foreign defense deals.

Staff from the Senate and House Armed Services committees will begin negotiating this month on a final version of the NDAA, which they hope will pass Congress and be signed into law by Trump later this year.

The NDAA has become law every year for nearly six decades.

These efforts are intended to put pressure on the Saudi government to improve its human rights record and do more to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE lead an air campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.


Congressional sentiment toward Saudi Arabia worsened after the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, at a Saudi consulate in Turkey last year.

Trump - and many supporters in Congress - object to punitive measures against Saudi Arabia, which they consider a valuable partner and important counterweight to Iran’s influence in the region.

Trump also considers foreign weapons sales an important generator of American jobs.

Republican Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last week withdrew legislation to rebuke Saudi Arabia over rights violations after committee members approved tougher provisions, including blocking arms sales and stopping refueling of Saudi aircraft.

But the committee also passed a separate bill, sponsored by Graham and Democrat Bob Menendez, the committee’s ranking member, with similar tougher provisions.

Menendez said he was “not overly optimistic” that the Senate’s Republican leadership would allow a vote on the bill, despite support from Graham and other Republicans.

In May, Trump’s administration sidestepped congressional review by declaring an “emergency” related to tensions with Iran in order to proceed with $8 billion in military sales mostly to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

That infuriated many lawmakers, and prompted the Senate and House to pass resolutions - including the three vetoed by Trump - to block the weapon sales by companies including Raytheon Co, Boeing Co, Lockheed Martin Corp and General Dynamics Corp.

Trump also vetoed a resolution this year that would have ended U.S. military support for the Saudi-UAE air campaign. The Republican-led Senate failed to override that veto.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Jonathan Oatis