Ever since April 1945, when Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated U.S.-Saudi ties in a meeting with King Ibn Saud, the two country's "special relationship" has been the private preserve of presidents, vice presidents, cabinet ministers, ambassadors, flag officers, and other eminentoes – plus their retired equivalents. The Congress has been as welcome in this important business as a skunk at a garden party. And for nearly a half century, generations of senators and representatives have invariably acquiesced to the Executive Branch's warnings that not to do its will would bring disaster.
But the House of Representatives today voted 217-191 on a foreign aid bill and resolved to deny financial assistance to Saudi Arabia. The Bush Administration strongly opposed the amendment to "prohibit any U.S. assistance to Saudi Arabia," saying it would "severely undermine" both counterterrorism cooperation with Saudi Arabia and U.S. efforts for peace in the Middle East (the latter is a bit of a stretch).
The actual amount is utterly trivial - $25,000 out of a $19.4 billion 2005 foreign aid bill, but beyond its political implications, it also has financial repercussions, for Saudi Arabia's receiving any amount of foreign aid, no matter how nominal, makes it eligible for much larger savings in discounts in a range of military expenditures.
It is a proud day for the Democrats, as they backed the measure to cut aid 156-39; in contrast, Republicans opposed it 152-60. (In all likelihood, those numbers would have been reversed were the president a Democrat, as relations with Saudi Arabia historically have not been a partisan matter.)
Next up: the Senate. For the Saudi aid not to go through, the Senate must either reject the Saudi aid provision or agree to its being dropped in conference. If history is a guide, the Senate will go along with the administration and Saudi Arabia will get the aid. But still, a vital precedent has been set and House members can stand proudly for having asserted, after fifty-nine long years, their constitutional prerogative. (July 15, 2004)
June 10, 2006 update: Two years later, same topic and roughly the same result. The House voted 312 to 97 to cut $420,000 in aid to Saudi Arabia, $400,000 for an anti-terrorism program and $20,000 in military training and education, due to Saudi teaching of intolerance and the lack of counterterrorism action by the kingdom. The measure now goes to the Senate.
Comment: The increased margin suggests a toughening of attitudes.
June 22, 2007 update: This year, the House voted again to ban any aid to Saudi Arabia. In 2005 and 2006, US$2.5 million went to Riyadh to train Saudis in counter-terrorism and border security and to pay for Saudi military officers to attend U.S. military school. The prohibition was attached to a foreign aid funding bill and faces a veto from the White House. The Reuters article notes that "In the past three years, Congress has passed bills to stop the relatively small amount of U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia, only to see the Bush administration circumvent the prohibitions. Now, lawmakers are trying to close loopholes so that no more U.S. aid can be sent to the world's leading petroleum exporter."