The Trump administration is quietly discussing whether to end a process for congressional review that has allowed lawmakers from both parties to block weapons sales to foreign governments over humanitarian concerns, according to current and former administration officials and congressional aides. The move could quickly advance sales of bombs to Saudi Arabia, among other deals.
If adopted, the change would effectively end congressional oversight over the sale of American weapons and offers of training to countries engaged in wars with high civilian casualties or human rights abuses, and would certainly widen rifts between the administration and Congress.
Senior administration officials have been especially frustrated in the past three years by bipartisan efforts in Congress to hold up arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has used American weapons to wage a devastating air war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.
In May of 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared an emergency to bypass Congress and fast-track more than $8 billion in bombs and other weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan — citing Iranian aggression in Yemen as the reason.
More recently, the administration has chafed at decisions by Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and others to block the sale of $478 million worth of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia.
Under the current system, which has existed for decades, the State Department gives informal notification to relevant foreign policy committees in Congress of proposed arms sales. The lawmakers then give input to administration officials, which helps the administration in making adjustments to ensure the sales get approved by Congress as a whole.
Under this informal process, lawmakers can hold up sales, which is what both Republican and Democratic senators have done with arms sales to Gulf Arab nations.
Once any differences are resolved, the administration gives Congress formal notification of the arms sales, which then starts a 30-day period when lawmakers can object.
If the administration scraps the informal notification process, it would tell Congress of proposed arms sales only through the formal process. That framework allows members of Congress to introduce and vote on resolutions to disapprove of certain sales. But to actually block a deal, a measure would require support from two-thirds of both chambers to overcome an inevitable presidential veto.
The State Department declined to comment on Thursday.
The discussions come at a particularly sensitive time for Mr. Pompeo, who has taken the lead in examining the option of ending the informal notification process.
Three congressional committees are investigating whether Mr. Pompeo urged President Trump to fire the State Department’s inspector general, Steve A. Linick, over inquiries Mr. Linick was conducting into Mr. Pompeo. One of those focused on whether Mr. Pompeo and other administration officials acted illegally when Mr. Pompeo announced an “emergency” declaration in May 2019 to push through the $8.1 billion sales of weapons in 22 batches mainly to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Those sales had been held up since 2017 by lawmakers from both parties in the informal notification process.
Mr. Pompeo was aware of Mr. Linick’s investigation and had submitted a written statement in response to questions from Mr. Linick’s office. Investigators were close to completing a report before Mr. Trump fired Mr. Linick in May. They had briefed several senior State Department officials of findings in early March.
Andrew Miller, a former State Department official, said he had heard that discussions had been underway for months among administration officials over ending the informal notification process with Congress.
He said some Congressional offices became aware of the discussions at the time that State Department officials gave informal notification to those offices about a new $478 million package of precision-guided munitions to the Saudi Arabia, which also included a license for one firm, Raytheon Technologies, to expand its manufacturing footprint there.
“In terms of the policy, it has two contradictory effects,” said Mr. Miller, a deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “On one hand, it could circumvent congressional oversight and lead to more reckless sales. On the other hand, it deprives the administration of an early opportunity to adjust sales to reflect congressional concerns, which could actually lead to delays.”
Besides the $478 million package to Saudi Arabia, lawmakers have also placed informal holds on packages to Turkey.
Under the review process, Congress reviews hundreds of proposed arms sales packages each year. The vast majority go through the process smoothly, but there have been prominent instances in which lawmakers and the Trump administration have clashed over sales.