WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators will try to force nearly two dozen votes rebuking the Trump administration’s decision to declare a national emergency to circumvent Congress and sell billions of dollars of munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The legislation, led by Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump ally and once a staunch defender of the kingdom, underscores lawmakers’ fury at the administration’s support for the Saudis after the killing of the dissident Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. And it could grind business in the Senate to a crawl while allowing rare public criticism of President Trump’s administration from members of his own party.
Mr. Trump circumvented Congress late last month by declaring an emergency over Iran and moving forward with arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan that had been blocked by Congress since last year, a decision that immediately drew criticism from lawmakers, who are also furious over the civilian death toll from the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen.
“We will not stand idly by and allow the president or the secretary of state to further erode congressional review and oversight of arm sales,” Mr. Menendez said in a statement. Referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he added: “Regrettably, Secretary Pompeo’s abuse of this emergency authority has broken the arms sales process. The best thing the secretary of state can do right now is withdraw his emergency certification, immediately submit these sales for the normal congressional review and engage with senators to address our concerns.”
The coalition of senators is hoping to leverage a provision in the Arms Export Control Act that allows lawmakers to introduce what is known as a privileged joint resolution of disapproval against a proposed sale of arms, in essence forcing a debate and a vote. Their plan is to introduce 22 such resolutions, one for each proposed arms sale. A simple majority of lawmakers would need to vote to allow the debate to proceed — and if the measures advanced, the group of senators could monopolize hours of floor time as soon as mid-June.
Winning such support from Republican lawmakers is not out of the question. Members of Congress from both parties were livid early this year when the White House missed a congressional deadline to submit a report detailing whether the administration found Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
And the Senate voted 54 to 46 in March to end American military assistance for the kingdom’s war in Yemen and to curtail presidential war powers, with seven Republican senators breaking ranks to join the resolution and the Democratic conference united in support.
To actually block the arms sales, however, backers of the resolutions would almost certainly need a veto-proof majority, and whether the measures could muster that is another question.
Five other lawmakers joined Mr. Menendez in his drive, including three Republicans: Senator Todd Young of Indiana, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mr. Graham. Mr. Graham said in a statement that he expected “strong bipartisan support” for the resolutions.
“While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored. Now is not the time to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Graham said. “I am also very concerned about the precedent these arms sales would set by having the administration go around legitimate concerns of the Congress.”
Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who first warned of the arms sales and is a sponsor of the legislation, said that “the U.S.-Saudi relationship needs to change, and it’s clear that only Congress can make that happen.”
New outrage emerged Tuesday, when Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, disclosed that the Energy Department had approved nuclear technology transfers to the kingdom on two occasions after Mr. Khashoggi’s killing in October in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul — including one approved two weeks after his death.
Lawmakers had repeatedly pressed cabinet officials on whether the administration had approved transfers of nuclear expertise from American companies to Saudi Arabia, but it took months for them to receive an answer.
“The alarming realization that the Trump administration signed off on sharing our nuclear know-how with the Saudi regime after it brutally murdered an American resident adds to a disturbing pattern of behavior,” Mr. Kaine said in a statement. “President Trump’s eagerness to give the Saudis anything they want, over bipartisan congressional objection, harms American national security interests.”