Democratic and Republican US senators introduced a resolution on Wednesday that could force President Joe Biden's administration to prepare a report on Saudi Arabia's human rights record and possibly lead to a reassessment of US security assistance for the kingdom.
Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Mike Lee introduced the resolution under a provision of the Foreign Assistance Act that allows Congress to vote to request information on a particular country's human rights practices.
If the resolution passes, the administration must submit the report within 30 days, or all security assistance to the country automatically stops.
After the report is received, the act stipulates that Congress may adopt a joint resolution terminating, restricting or continuing security assistance to that country.
Murphy, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Mideast subcommittee, said it was the first attempt to make use of the clause.
Aides said it was too soon to assess how the resolution would be received, but they hoped it would trigger a broader conversation about human rights.
While Washington considers Riyadh an important partner in the Middle East, many lawmakers criticise its involvement in the war in Yemen, considered one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters, as well rights violations such as executions of political prisoners.
Last year, there were calls to freeze cooperation with Saudi Arabia, including most arms sales, amid accusations that it helped underwrite the Russian war with Ukraine after OPEC+ announced it would cut oil production.
The kingdom is a major customer for US weapons and aerospace equipment. Two of its airlines just agreed to buy 78 Boeing aircraft and took options to buy another 43. The list price for 78 planes would total nearly $37 billion.
Murphy, long a vocal critic of the conflict in Yemen and Riyadh's record on human rights, praised Biden for being willing to reassess ties. But he said the country needs to do more.
"When we cosy up to these brutal dictators, who engage in some of the most brazen, brutal repression of democracy and free speech, it gravely harms our efforts to save global democracy," Murphy told reporters.