Sen. Chris Murphy, a Longtime Saudi War Critic, Votes to Support Missile Sale

Murphy argued the $650 million sale of air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia is for “defensive weapons” against Yemen's Houthis.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) speaks during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nomination of Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on January 27, 2021. (Photo by Greg Nash / POOL / AFP) (Photo by GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27, 2021. Photo: Greg Nash/AFP via Getty Images

The Senate tonight voted 67-30 against a resolution to ban a $650 million air-to-air missile sale to Saudi Arabia approved by the State Department.

The resolution was introduced last month by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; and Mike Lee, R-Utah. “A message needs to be sent to Saudi Arabia that we don’t approve of their war with Yemen,” Paul said at the time. “By participating in this sale, we would not only be rewarding reprehensible behavior, but also exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who partnered with Sanders and Lee in November 2018 to invoke the 1973 War Powers Resolution to prohibit U.S. participation in the Saudi bombing offensive in Yemen, notably didn’t back his colleagues in this latest effort.

His vote of opposition represents a significant shift for Murphy, who claimed in an email to The Intercept last month explaining his support of the sale: “I have been the leading critic of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.”

“This is a true defensive weapons sale,” he told The Intercept ahead of the vote. “And with the increased pace of Houthi drones coming into Saudi territory, it is actually important for them to have the ability to shoot them.” The Houthis are an Iran-backed Shia movement that pushed the Saudi-backed Yemen government out of power in 2014.

Murphy’s comments repeat State Department arguments that the 280 Raytheon-built Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles, or AMRAAMs, which will be used on Saudi Arabia’s fighter jets, are defensive in nature. Opponents of the sale have rejected that characterization, insisting that the weapon empowers the Saudis to maintain their blockade of Yemeni ports. The labeling of the missiles as defensive, though, permits the White House to claim the sale complies with President Joe Biden’s policy earlier this year to forbid U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen.

Paul also disputed the justification, telling The Intercept today, “I don’t think any weapons are purely for defensive purposes.” He further argued the White House could use the export to gain concessions from the Saudis to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen. “If we were to use the leverage of not selling them weapons, I think we could end the blockade and stop a lot of people from dying from starvation,” he said.

Murphy, who led reforms to exert congressional oversight of the White House during the Trump administration, claimed that power to use the AMRAAM sale as leverage should rest with Biden. “I don’t think Congress should take that ability away from the president,” he said. “I think the president should have this sale and be able to use it in discussions with the Saudis about their policy going forward.”

In a statement ahead of the vote today, the White House continued to defend the sale, saying the Biden administration “strongly opposes” the resolution.

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