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Democrats stand between Biden and sale of U.S. fighter jets to Turkey

President Joe Biden wants to sell advanced U.S. fighter jets to Turkey. Democrats are standing in his way.

The House is voting this week on a bipartisan measure to significantly restrict Biden’s ability to sell F-16 fighter jets to Ankara, and a top Senate Democrat is already refusing to sign off on the transfer.

It’s the latest high-profile foreign policy dispute between congressional Democrats and the Biden administration. Taken together, the effort makes it nearly impossible for the administration to follow through on its stated desire to sell the jets to a NATO ally that critics say is embracing authoritarianism and violating the sovereignty of neighboring nations.

“How do you reward a nation that does all of those things?” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in an interview. “I don’t see it. Now, if they want to start changing their ways, that’s a different story.”

Menendez is one of four lawmakers whose approval is required for foreign military sales. He has long opposed the sale, and doubled down this week even after Biden said at the NATO summit last month that he wanted to sell the jets to Turkey.

Biden’s remarks came after Turkey dropped its opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO, but the White House has said there was no connection between Turkey’s move and Biden’s remarks.

Lawmakers say that Turkey should have never thrown up roadblocks to the two NATO aspirants in the first place. On top of that, Turkey is facing U.S. sanctions for its previous purchases of Russian-made missile defense systems, and its pilots have violated Greece’s airspace hundreds of times in recent weeks. Menendez also cited the “rise of authoritarianism” under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

What’s more, the House is voting this week on an amendment to the annual defense policy legislation that would tie Biden’s hands by barring the sale unless he can certify that it’s critical to U.S. national security and that the jets won’t be used to violate Greece’s airspace.

It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will try to persuade Menendez to back the F-16 sale. When asked whether he could be convinced to drop his opposition, Menendez responded: “Not very much.” His GOP counterpart on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, is undecided.

Democratic members of the Hellenic Caucus released a blistering statement last week in response to Biden’s declaration of support for the sale, saying the administration hasn’t allayed their concerns about Turkey’s “antagonistic actions” toward Greece as well as its potential re-invasion of Syria to target U.S.-allied Kurds.

“Until the administration can provide suitable answers on how they intended to mitigate the above-listed concerns, we will continue to object to this weapons transfer and do everything we can to ensure that these F-16s are not delivered to the Turkish government,” the lawmakers concluded.

Not all Democrats are opposed to the sale.

House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said that while he believes Menendez’s concerns are “legitimate,” selling F-16s would help repair the U.S.-Turkey relationship.

“Turkey has done a lot of things that have made the relationship difficult. But it’s not a relationship we can afford to flush,” Smith said in an interview. “So we need to try to find a way to rebuild it. F-16s seem like a reasonable way to do it.”

While congressional opposition makes it exceedingly difficult for Biden to sell the advanced fighter jets to Turkey, he has a break-glass option. He could declare a state of emergency to circumvent Congress — a step taken by President Donald Trump when lawmakers wouldn’t approve his bid to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

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