WASHINGTON • The Trump administration is preparing to circumvent Congress to allow the export to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of billions of dollars worth of munitions that are now on hold, according to current and former US officials and legislators.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and some political appointees in the State Department are pushing for the administration to invoke an emergency provision that would allow President Donald Trump to prevent Congress from halting the sales, worth about US$7 billion (S$9.6 billion).
The sales of arms, which include precision-guided munitions and combat aircraft, would infuriate lawmakers in both parties.
They would also further inflame tensions between the United States and Iran, which views Saudi Arabia as its main rival and has been supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen in their campaign against a Saudi-led military coalition that includes the UAE.
US legislators from both parties remain incensed by the Trump administration's equivocal response to the grisly killing last October by Saudi agents of Mr Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident.
They are also frustrated by the administration's role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war, a four-year conflict that the United Nations has deemed the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with thousands of civilians killed and millions suffering from famine.
This year, both the House and Senate approved bipartisan legislation to cut off military assistance to Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen using the 1973 War Powers Act, only to see it vetoed.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, said that circumventing Congress on a Middle East arms sale would be "a big mistake", though he added that he would need to see the specifics of such a deal. "We have a gold standard for that sort of arrangement, and to violate it for Saudi Arabia is going to open the door for it to happen in multiple other places," he said.
Senator Lindsey Graham, also Republican and a strong Trump ally, on Thursday said he would "not do business as usual with the Saudis until we have a better reckoning" with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom US intelligence agencies consider to be responsible for the killing of Mr Khashoggi, and the Saudi role in the Yemen war.
"The Senate always has tools to deal with the administration," he said, without elaborating.
Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that he would "pursue all appropriate legislative and other means to nullify these and any planned ongoing sales should the administration move forward in this manner".
He warned that the companies involved may face consequences. "Any attempt to export under that provision would be a violation of the Export Control Act," Mr Menendez said. "Do they want to subject themselves to the liability of that?"
No other foreign policy issue has created as large a rift between Mr Trump and Congress, and the move on the arms sales, which could take place within days, would deepen the divide.
Mr Pompeo would oversee the action, and the State Department is preparing for lawmakers to stall confirmations on all State Department nominees if it is implemented. Within the department, veteran Foreign Service officers have strongly opposed Mr Pompeo's position.
The proposal emerged publicly on Wednesday when Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, criticised it on Twitter.
Members of Congress ordinarily are given a review period during which they can pass legislation modifying or prohibiting a prospective arms sale. But a provision in the Arms Export Control Act allows the President to bypass congressional review if he deems "an emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States".
"It sets an incredibly dangerous precedent that future presidents can use to sell weapons without a check from Congress," Mr Murphy said in an interview on Thursday.
Mr Pompeo's emergency declaration would be based on what he says is a heightened threat against American interests in the region from Iran. Mr Pompeo took the extraordinary step this month of ordering a withdrawal of almost all US diplomats from the Baghdad embassy and Erbil consulate in Iraq.
Tensions between the US and Iran have soared since May 5, when Mr John Bolton, the national security adviser and an Iran hawk, announced that the White House was ordering an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers to speed up their movement to the Persian Gulf.
On Thursday, Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Mr Trump might send more troops to the Middle East because of the tensions with Iran.
European allies and Iraqi leaders have expressed scepticism about American alarm over Iran.
"It was only a matter of time before the administration might try to push back against congressional upset with Saudi over Yemen and the Khashoggi murder to resume arms sales," said Dr Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East adviser and negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. "What better justification than a semi-manufactured national security war scare with Iran?"