The Senate has passed a historic resolution directing the Trump administration to rescind all US military assistance to Saudi Arabia related to its war in Yemen.
The resolution, which passed 56 to 41, is a rare bipartisan rebuke to the White House over its policies toward Saudi Arabia. The measure, which had failed in the Senate in March, was revived and reinvigorated in the wake of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2.
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-CT) co-sponsored the resolution to stop US involvement in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The nearly four-year conflict has killed an estimated 50,000 people and put nearly 12 million on the brink of famine.
The war in Yemen — and US support for the Saudi-led effort — actually began during the Obama administration. But President Trump has moved the US even closer to Saudi Arabia as part of his administration’s broader Middle East policy, which largely focuses on countering Iran.
The horrific assassination of Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has put the US-Saudi relationship under a microscope, particularly after the CIA concluded that the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
The Senate resolution is a major step toward holding the administration accountable and wresting back some control of war powers from the executive branch. Yet it’s still a long way away from actually ending US support for the Saudis in Yemen, or finding a resolution to the conflict altogether.
The White House in particular has pushed back against the Senate’s measure, and if it were to end up on Trump’s desk, it would almost certainly face a presidential veto. Additionally, the House approved a rule on Wednesday that blocks the chamber from taking up any Yemen resolutions before the end of the year, meaning the Senate resolution won’t advance.
Still, the Senate’s passage of the resolution shows that lawmakers are seriously scrutinizing the Trump administration’s Saudi policy and, more broadly, the value and purpose of US military activities abroad.
The Senate stands up to the Trump administration
The Senate’s resolution calls on the US to suspend its role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. It invokes the War Powers Resolution, which gives Congress the power to direct the president to remove US forces from “hostilities abroad” if the president hasn’t sought a declaration of war or an authorization of the use of force.
Senators began debate on the resolution Wednesday afternoon and continued debating into Thursday afternoon. Several lawmakers proposed amendments along the way. Some strengthened the measure, such as the bipartisan amendment introduced by Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), along with Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Chris Coons (D-DE), which prohibits the US refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft.
The US had already indicated that it would halt refueling in November, but this amendment makes it explicit. The US military refuels a portion of Saudi coalition aircraft, and removing this option potentially limits the Saudis’ ability to conduct bombing missions. The amendment passed 58-41.
Other measures, however, were clearly introduced in an attempt to neuter the resolution completely — in particular, the amendments introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). One would have allowed the US and the Saudis to share “materials and advice” to prevent civilian casualties, which is already how the US frames its involvement, and the other would have carved out an exception if Houthi rebels attacked places outside of Yemen, which is how Saudi Arabia often justifies its offensive. The amendments failed.
The Senate bill won’t alter US policy immediately
The House will not take up the measure before the end of the year. Republicans introduced a rule that passed on Wednesday, 206-203, that effectively blocks lawmakers in the House from forcing a vote on Yemen-related resolutions through the end of 2018.
The White House is also staunchly opposed to the Senate’s measure, and if anything managed to get through both chambers, it would surely meet a Trump veto.
Still, the Senate’s passage of the resolution, 56-41, indicates that the Senate might still be able to push this bipartisan resolution in the next Congress — and this time, it might get somewhere with the House, which Democrats will control in 2019.
This also isn’t the only measure being considered that would punish Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s death. The Senate also approved a nonbinding resolution Thursday that holds MBS responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.
The Senate may also take up a vote on a bill that would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and impose sanctions on officials who block humanitarian access in Yemen, or who were involved in Khashoggi’s death.
The Senate’s resolution comes on the same day that the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels reached a ceasefire agreement for a key strategic city in Yemen. This easing of hostilities doesn’t end the war in Yemen — but this week offered real breakthroughs in tackling one of the world’s most devastating humanitarian crises.