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The Senate is moving closer to ending US support for the war in Yemen

The vote won’t change anything yet, but it’s still a big deal — and a huge rebuke to Trump and Saudi Arabia.

Yemeni militiamen and soldiers outside Sanaa
Yemeni militiamen and soldiers allied to the country’s internationally recognized government climb a mountain in the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen, on February 2, 2018.
Jon Gambrell/AP

In a sharp rebuke to President Donald Trump and his embrace of Saudi Arabia, the GOP-controlled Senate voted on Wednesday to seriously consider ending America’s role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

In a 63-37 vote, lawmakers discharged a bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-CT), that would force the US to cease its support for the Saudi-led coalition in its bloody fight against the Houthi rebels in Yemen within 30 days. The White House, however, has threatened to veto final passage of the bill.

The US helps the Saudi-led coalition by providing them with intelligence, selling them arms and ammunition, and, until recently, fueling planes in the conflict that has left tens of thousands dead and millions more suffering from starvation and disease. That means the US is partially culpable for the death and destruction of Houthi fighters and even civilians.

The bill invokes the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (WPR), which states that if US troops are involved in “hostilities” abroad “without a declaration of war or specific statutory authorization, such forces shall be removed by the President if the Congress so directs by concurrent resolution.”

A similar bill must still pass the House before that happens. House Republicans have tried to block a vote on the measure, but Democrats tell me they feel confident they can pass a similar measure either in this or the next Congress when they are in the majority.

If that’s the case, then it means both chambers will have formally disapproved of America’s assistance in the Yemen war.

If Trump feels strongly that the US should back the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, he could formally ask Congress to authorize America’s involvement there. But it’s unlikely that would pass, especially if lawmakers just basically voted against it.

So while Wednesday’s vote doesn’t formally end US involvement in the Yemen war, it shows just how dissatisfied Congress — including Trump allies — are with the US role in it and the increasingly troubling US-Saudi relationship.

That, in part, is why Murphy tweeted his pleasure with the result minutes after the vote.

Why senators are discussing this now

Wednesday’s vote came just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis briefed senators in a White House-directed effort to garner opposition to the bill. They argued that the war would be worse without America’s involvement, mainly because the US helps the Saudi-led coalition not kill as many civilians.

But while lawmakers have previously been receptive to this argument — in fact, the exact same measure failed in the Senate in March in a 55 to 44 vote — they evidently weren’t convinced this time around. And a big reason for that is the murder of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October.

Khashoggi was murdered and allegedly dismembered inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. Senators, many of whom have historically backed the US-Saudi relationship, are angry about the killing. In October, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a staunch Trump ally, said he felt “completely betrayed” by Riyadh.

The brutality and brazenness of Khashoggi’s murder seems to have changed many senators’ calculations about the value of the US-Saudi relationship. And pulling US support for the Saudi war in Yemen — a war personally directed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS — is a powerful way to communicate their displeasure.

Senators were also angry that the White House ordered CIA Director Gina Haspel not to attend Wednesday’s briefing, and that may have provided an extra incentive to currently support the bill.

Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had determined that MBS personally ordered the murder of the journalist and dissident. MBS denies any involvement — and Trump seems to believe him. It’s therefore likely that Trump didn’t want Haspel to dig into her agency’s findings with senators ahead of the vote — a decision that rankled lawmakers from both parties.

Experts say the Khashoggi murder, Trump’s coziness with MBS, and his unwillingness to let Haspel brief lawmakers contributed to the stunning result. That means it’s possible the Senate’s pushback on Trump was a moment of the president’s own making.

“Trump has now successfully completed the process of making the Saudi alliance partisan,” Paul Musgrave, an expert on US foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told me.

America’s involvement in Yemen is not over

It’s the first time that a congressional chamber moved a War Powers Resolution-linked bill forward, showing how negatively senators from both parties view the Yemen war and US support for Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi’s murder. But what happens next is a little murky.

What we do know is the vote only took the bill out of committee and allows for a full floor debate. There will be discussions about amending the bill to make it more palatable to the White House, and a full vote on passing the bill may or not may happen in the coming weeks.

Trump can veto the Senate’s bill if it’s fully passed, and the White House has already threatened to do so. The problem for Trump, though, is that a WPR bill in the House has special privileges that make it immune to a presidential veto.

House Republicans changed the rules two weeks ago, so there won’t be a vote in this Congress. That means if House GOP leadership doesn’t change the rule again, it’s likely the Senate’s Wednesday vote will prove fruitless. “If the House doesn’t act on anything the Senate sends over, it’s back to square one in the new Congress,” a House Democratic aide told me.

But Democrats take control of the House in January. With their majority, Democrats tell me they are confident the veto-proof WPR measure will pass, mostly because top party leaders like California Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff have signed on to it.

The Senate would have to vote on Wednesday’s bill yet again, but it might be harder to get a similar result, as the chamber will feature more Republicans in the next Congress and months will have passed since Khashoggi’s death.

Still, Trump would be in quite the bind. Even if the Senate vote fails — or it passes and Trump vetoes it — he would still have to contend with the House vote he can do nothing about. That would put him in a tough spot — and it’s unclear what would happen then.

“That’s when we get into really gray territory,” another House Democratic aide told me.

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