Something very strange happened in Congress this week: Five House Democrats helped Republicans block a resolution ending US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen from coming up for a vote this year — and the reasoning behind their decision to cross party lines makes no sense.
The Senate was planning to vote Thursday on the Yemen resolution, which was sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Mike Lee (R-UT) and had bipartisan support.
The Saudi-led war in Yemen, directed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS), has killed more than 50,000 people, according to one independent estimate, and left more than 20 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance.
The resolution was expected to pass (and it did pass, with a 56-41 vote margin), in large part because lawmakers, Senate Democratic leaders, and progressive activists worked in concert for months to build bipartisan support for it. But just one day before the Senate passed it, House Republicans and a handful of House Democrats came along and put the Senate resolution back to square one.
This is the story of what happened — and how the maneuvering unnecessarily setback a historic effort in the Senate to not only recognize the United States’ role in a humanitarian crisis, but also put a check on President Donald Trump, who has been more than happy to turn a blind eye to brutal Saudi war efforts.
There are a lot of unresolved tension points in the Democratic Party on foreign policy, particularly when taking a bold new stance may cause hiccups on other domestic priorities. Progressive grassroots energy has gone a long way to define the domestic agenda it would like to see from Democratic leaders. Now, a clearer foreign policy agenda is also forming.
“There is a sea change happening in the progressive movement and we are seeing it in some of the new people that understand the link between domestic and foreign policy,” Elizabeth Beavers, a policy director with Indivisible, the nation’s largest grassroots progressive group, said. “That’s still being socialized on the Hill.”
House Republicans pushed to stall action on the Yemen war. Democrats helped them do it.
The Senate’s Yemen resolution invokes the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (WPR), which gives Congress the power to direct a president to remove troops involved in “hostilities” abroad “without a declaration of war or specific statutory authorization.”
On Wednesday, Republicans in the House snuck a provision to block votes on Yemen-related War Powers Resolutions for the remainder of this Congress to a procedural vote on an unrelated bill — a massive bipartisan legislative package that subsidizes agriculture and funds food assistance programs, known as the farm bill.
Republican leaders were giving the impression that lawmakers had to choose between Yemeni people and Americans. And it worked. Five Democrats, Reps. Jim Costa (CA), Al Lawson (FL), Collin Peterson (MN), Dutch Ruppersberger (MD), and David Scott (GA) voted to advance the farm bill to a floor vote, giving Republicans enough support to block action on Yemen.
Members of the House in both parties who supported the measure to end US support for the Saudi-led war were furious. “Just when you thought Congress couldn’t get any swampier, we continue to exceed expectations,” Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian, said on the House floor.
Progressive activists were shocked, too. “We saw a lot of outrage and frustration and disbelief in the field,” Beavers said. “We expect Democratic leadership to prioritize this. ... There is palpable disbelief that Democrats killed this.”
Everyone had the same question: Why didn’t House Democratic leadership fight harder to prevent this from happening?
US farmers versus Yemeni kids
According to two of the Democrats who joined Republicans on the procedural vote that blocked action on Yemen, they did so to “save” the farm bill.
“[W]e’ve worked for two years on this farm bill, and I’ll be damned if I let anyone screw it up,” Peterson said in an interview with the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein. He added that the Yemen issue was the Democratic Party getting “off on tangents” and that he didn’t know a “damn thing” about Yemen.
Full transcript below. Some estimates say more than 50,000 civilians have died in Yemen pic.twitter.com/rR2ezICtv2— Jeff Stein (@JStein_WaPo) December 12, 2018
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger was more knowledgeable about Yemen, but he said Peterson had urged him to vote with Republicans, warning him that the farm bill was at risk if he didn’t. (Enough conservatives had vowed to vote against the farm bill — because it didn’t cut welfare programs — that the legislation needed bipartisan support to pass.)
“I feel very sad about what’s happening in Yemen. I’ve been to Yemen,” Ruppersberger said. “But if we didn’t vote for it, the [farm] bill would have died, and if the bill would have died that would have meant thousands of people wouldn’t have gotten their SNAP benefits.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who supports the Senate measure (and sponsored its parallel resolution in the House), said he puts most of the blame on Republicans for creating an “unfair” choice — not on the Democrats who broke ranks.
But that’s not the whole story. It wasn’t merely a choice between farm bill or no farm bill —there was a third option.
Democrats could have tried to stop this — they just didn’t
Democratic leaders in the House, all of which have publicly supported the resolution to end US support for the war in Yemen, could have fought for their party to stay in line.
If the procedural vote on the farm bill had failed, it wouldn’t have actually killed the farm bill. It would have merely required Republicans to renegotiate the procedural vote. It’s possible that if Democrats had stayed unified, they could have forced Republicans to strip out the Yemen provision, and vote on the farm bill in earnest.
But that didn’t happen. It was business as usual among the Democratic ranks. Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer’s office sent out a general advisory to lawmakers to vote against the provision — as they typically do with partisan plays. Everyone seemed to know it was going to be a tight vote. But Democratic leaders didn’t put up a big fight to keep members unified.
Behind the scenes, the lack of action was clear.
“Either Whip [Steny] Hoyer was able to execute all of his kinds of whipping abilities and failed overwhelmingly to whip for a bill he is an original co-sponsor of — which is pretty implausible — or basically they did not do those things,” one Democratic aide said.
So why didn’t they fight harder? Democratic leadership emphasizes that they will address US’s involvement in Yemen when they take over the House in January, but the grassroots progressive movement that just put them back in power isn’t happy.
“There’s no excuse for that,” Josh Nelson, a co-director of the progressive activist group CREDO Action, said. “If you’re in Democratic leadership and you know there is a big vote coming on this and the US has blood on its hands here, this is something that the Democratic Party and Democrats deeply oppose.”
Prioritizing the war in Yemen has been an uphill battle — even among Democrats
In March, a similar resolution was killed in the Senate, after Republicans and a handful of Democrats essentially said it was fine for the US to continue supporting Saudis’ brutal three-year fight in Yemen.
Since then, Sanders has been working to get Democrats unified on this issue. When Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in October, there was momentum to bring it up again.
But both the White House and Saudi lobbyists were also working hard to build support for US involvement in the Yemen war.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis claimed that stopping US aid “could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism, and reduce our influence with the Saudis — all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis.”
And Saudi lobbying efforts have long established themselves in Washington, DC.
“I don’t underestimate the influence Saudi Arabia has on Washington DC,” Josh Miller-Lewis, Sanders’s spokesperson, said. “Bernie fought so hard over the last couple of months to make sure this thing passed in the Senate and to make sure the Democrats were unified behind it,” Miller-Lewis said. “There were times in the last couple months that we didn’t think we had the support.”
And although Sanders was successful in rallying Democrats in the Senate to support ending US involvement in Yemen, in the House,when put up against a domestic priority in the House that unity fell short.
But that may not be the case for much longer.
Democrats are gaining a lot more power soon — and progressives want bold action
In just a couple weeks, a new crop of Democrats will join the House as the party takes back the majority — and the activist energy that put them there is making clear they won’t stand for what happened in the House again.
“Our movement just helped build a blue wave and build a Democratic majority and we expect them to draw a distinction with the Trump agenda,” Beavers, of Indivisible, said. “There isn’t a constituency that is visibly supporting starving kids in Yemen.”
Now, Hoyer and Pelosi are giving assurances that the Democratic House will prioritize this effort going forward.
“The crisis in Yemen is horrific, and Congress must hold the administration accountable,” Hoyer said. “As a co-sponsor of Rep. Khanna’s resolution, I find Republicans’ refusal to take action on this issue to be inexcusable. Democrats are committed to working together in the 116th Congress to take action to change the administration’s policy.”
But lawmakers are pointing out that waiting just means more lives on the line.
“The people of Yemen cannot wait any longer,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) tweeted. “They do not have the luxury of waiting until [House Democrats] take the majority. Every day we fail to act is another day of senseless violence, starvation, and misery for them.”
“Every 10 minutes a Yemeni child is dying,” Khanna said.