Washington • One of President Donald Trump’s closest congressional allies is ready to strip him of certain emergency powers in response to the administration sidestepping lawmakers to secure 22 arms sales benefiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"Do away with the emergency exception," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday. Doing so, he added, would prevent the executive branch from repeating such a move in the future. "I would not have agreed to that before, but after this maneuver by the administration, count me in."
Graham is one of several leading lawmakers conferring over how to change the rules governing congressional oversight of arms sales to prevent end-runs around Congress, after Democrats and Republicans objected to the administration citing an unspecific threat from Iran to expedite more than $8 billion worth of weapons sales.
"We're talking about a more permanent fix, so we can't have it this way again," Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said.
Next week, Menendez, Graham, and others are expected to ask for a vote on 22 disapproval resolutions aimed at blocking the sales, and a bipartisan majority of senators is expected to support that effort. House Democrats also are expected to pursue a package of disapproval resolutions intended to stymie the deals.
But with Republican Senate leaders committed to oppose the resolutions, it will be difficult to overcome a presidential veto.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch, R-Idaho, who has not supported efforts to block the resolutions, said this week that it would be best if the House, Senate, State Department and the White House could agree on legislation to address the arms sales.
But lawmakers and State Department officials remain at odds over the deals' legitimacy, and there were no signs of common ground Wednesday as the House Foreign Affairs Committee grilled one of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's top deputies about the emergency declaration.
Panel chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., began the hearing with R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, by accusing the administration of creating a "phony" emergency to justify the sales.
"Here's the reality: there is no emergency," Engel said. "It's made up. And it's an abuse of the law."
Cooper argued that the declaration had been prompted by a "significant increase" in threats from Iran, coupled with "the clear, provocative, damaging actions taken by Iran's government."
But Democrats were not having it - and Republicans were clearly uncomfortable with having been circumvented as well.
"The recent use of this emergency authority, in my judgment, was unfortunate," said the panel's ranking member, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, adding: "Consulting with Congress is always the better route."
Democrats and Republicans are frustrated by Trump's continued embrace of Saudi leaders in the face of congressional efforts to distance the United States from Yemen's civil war and impose sanctions in response to its leaders' role in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist who was slain in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October.
House Democrats grilled Cooper Wednesday about whether the president or his son-in-law, Jared Kushner - who has a close relationship with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman - had played a role in the emergency declaration, or hashing out the terms of the arms deals ahead of time. Cooper denied that Kushner had.
They also questioned why Pompeo had not briefed lawmakers on his plans, pointing out that the secretary had briefed all senators and House members about Iran just three days before the emergency declaration.
"Which came first, the arms sales, or the threat?" Engel asked Cooper, noting that acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan told lawmakers during the May 21 briefings that the threat from Iran had spiked, but was in decline.
Cooper refused to detail in a public setting any of the individual deals, leaving Democrats to question whether the administration was expediting the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia to arm it for a regional war or an escalation of its military campaign in Yemen.
They challenged Cooper's assertion that giving Saudi Arabia more precision-guided weapons would help them avoid civilian casualties in Yemen, pointing out that such weapons seemingly had been used to target schools and hospitals.
McCaul, the panel’s top Republican, joined Democrats in questioning how critical the emergency could be if it would take months or years to complete certain weapons deals.