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Lawmakers aim to twist Trump’s arm on Yemen — and check his cozy ties to Saudi Arabia

A motley crew of lawmakers is gearing up for a fight over the defense budget.

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Kim Kyung-Hoon - Pool/Getty Images

A motley crew of Congress’s most conservative and most progressive lawmakers is fighting to end US involvement in the war in Yemen — a move that would weaken President Donald Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Its battleground: the nation’s massive defense budget.

As Congress gears up to pass its 2020 defense budget — which will likely amount to more than $730 billion in funding for the Pentagon and a couple other agencies’ national-security activities — a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) and Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL), is pushing to include a provision that would end US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

The amendment “prohibits support to and participation in the Saudi-led coalitions military operations against the Houthis in Yemen.”

If passed — pulling together the same coalition of 54 senators, including seven Republicans, and 248 House lawmakersit would be a major rebuke of Trump’s foreign policy, which has used the US’s cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia to escalate tensions with Iran. It wouldn’t be lawmakers’ first attempt to do so, but it could be the most effective: In April, Congress passed a historic War Powers Resolution directing Trump to remove troops involved in “hostilities” in Yemen, a Saudi-led war against the Iranian-backed Houthis, that’s killed more than 50,000 and left tens of millions in need of humanitarian aid. Trump vetoed it, committed to the US’s long-standing alliance with the Riyadh — not to mention his personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (the same MBS who allegedly called for Saudi Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing).

The US was involved in the Saudi-led war before Trump took office — for four years, the United States has been providing the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence, arms, and ammunition, and, until late last year, fuel for their warplanes. (The planes that bombed a school bus, killing at least 40 children last August, did so with an American-made bomb.) But by rejecting congressional attempts to end that involvement, Trump has cemented American fingerprints on one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world: According to the most recent United Nations report, 80 percent of the Yemeni population — 24 million people — is in need of humanitarian assistance. A recent United Nations report found that the US, Britain, and France may be complicit in war crimes in Yemen.

The defense budget is seen as a must-do in Congress; it has passed every year for more than 50 years, despite deep partisan divisions. If these lawmakers can get this provision in the final bill, Trump will be put in a tough spot: Is he willing to reject a massive boost to military spending to maintain his unfettered relationship with the Saudis?

The fight to force Trump’s hand on Yemen continues

Trump’s veto on the War Powers Resolution was a major blow to what was a years-long effort to end US involvement in the war in Yemen. But it wasn’t unexpected. Trump has repeatedly emphasized his support for MBS, calling him a “great ally.” His administration lobbied hard against the Yemen War Powers Resolution.

Since his veto, Trump’s administration brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran and sidestepped Congress to unilaterally authorize $8 billion in arms sales, including to Saudi Arabia and its allies.

In that time, progressive activists and the same bipartisan coalition behind the War Powers Resolution on Yemen have mobilized around the defense budget. And now, they are doing so in a split Congress with Democrats in control of the House.

In July, the House passed a Yemen war-related amendment to the defense budget bill, offered by Khanna and three other key House Democrats: Reps. Adam Smith (D-WA), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee; Adam Schiff (D-CA), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee; and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). Their provision would ban the transfer, sale, or export of any defense materials that would be used in the war in Yemen for a minimum of two years, and end all US aid — from intelligence to logistical support — to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the war.

That bill also included an amendment that would restrict Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran without congressional approval. Sanders introduced a similar amendment on Yemen to the Senate’s version of the defense budget.

Trump has already threatened to veto the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) over the funding levels. His administration requested $750 billion for the Pentagon budget — a figure Senate Republicans passed late last month. The House bill included $730 billion in funding. Presumably, the Yemen provision would also be a hard pill for Trump to swallow.

As the House and Senate are hashing out the differences between the two defense budget bills, activists and this group of lawmakers are lobbying their leaderships to include the provisions on the Yemen war.

There’s no question that this push will still see major resistance among Senate Republicans, who so far have largely supported giving Trump unfettered authority — especially when it comes to Iran. The question is whether Democratic leadership will prioritize this issue enough in final negotiations.

“Democrats do have a ton of power in this situation,” Hassan El-Tayyab, with anti-war lobby Friends Committee on National Legislation. “They control in the House. But internally the talk was all defeatist.”

Will Democrats prioritize the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) have been very public about Yemen being a high priority in negotiations. But neither have drawn red lines around the policy. Khanna, however, has said he has gotten assurances from Smith as well as Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer that this is a top priority.

“I think it’s a red line for House Democrats,” Khanna told Vox. “The Republicans are going to push back, and we are going to hold firm.”

For months, anti-war advocacy groups have been working to get lawmakers on the record about the Yemen war. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, came out in support of defunding US involvement in the Middle Eastern country.

A group of 17 Republican and Democratic lawmakers, including several presidential candidates like Sanders, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) signed a letter to leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees to reiterate the need to “prohibit US involvement in offensive strikes in the Saudi-led campaign again the Houthis in Yemen.”

The biggest Senate and House offices behind this push are hopeful, but they’re not expecting a win outright. Passing the War Powers Resolution with a bipartisan coalition was a monumental moment. It took incredible lobbying from anti-war activists as well as internal pressure from progressive leaders like Khanna, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) to not only win over conservatives but also Democrats’ own leadership.

“There is a recognition that this is more for real, but as I said, members voted for this,” Matt Duss, who advises Sanders on foreign policy, said.

The War Powers Resolution passed with unanimous support among Democrats and a small segment of Republicans who have signaled constitutional crisis over war powers. The national defense budget will be the biggest test yet of this unusual coalition.

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