The Senate voted 63-37 on Wednesday to advance a resolution that would end United States support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, where thousands of civilians have been killed and millions more face starvation and the outbreak of disease in what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Before the vote, senators from both parties expressed frustration with the ongoing bloodshed in Yemen, the lack of transparency around the Trump administration’s relationship with the Saudi Arabian government, and its response to the abduction and killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) said, “It is a vote … that says that the United States Senate respects the Constitution … and understands that the issue of war making, of going to war, putting young men and women’s lives at stake, is something determined by the US Congress, not the president of the United States.”
The vote brings the resolution out of committee and to the Senate floor for debate and markup. A vote on the final legislation is expected as early as next week.
The US and other western countries supply a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with military equipment, fuel and intelligence that are being used to wage the war in Yemen. President Trump has dubiously boasted about negotiating arms deals with Saudi Arabia even as Saudi military leaders came under mounting international scrutiny for killing civilians and other possible war crimes.
If passed by the Senate, the resolution to end US involvement in Yemen’s civil war would be a major victory for Sanders and peace activists on Capitol Hill, who have long pushed to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen and reassert Congress’s power over military entanglements overseas.
“Congress needs to reassert its war-making authorities, it has not done so in the past 17 years, and we have seen a slow and steady expansion of wars around the world,” said Kate Kizer, director of Win Without War, an antiwar group putting public pressure on lawmakers to support the resolution, in a press conference.
The resolution also gives members of Congress a chance to issue a sharp rebuke of the Trump administration’s broader stance toward Saudi Arabia. Trump has come under fire from lawmakers in both parties over his milquetoast response to the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi Embassy in Istanbul on October 2.
Multiple reports and a CIA review have left little doubt that the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s killing, but Trump has attempted to cast doubt on the revelations, saying in a statement last week that it’s possible the crown prince “had knowledge” of the “tragic event,” but “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump also reaffirmed Saudi Arabia’s standing as a “steadfast partner” in the Middle East and “great ally” to the US in “our very important fight against Iran.” The Saudi government denies that Prince Muhammad ordered the attack on Khashoggi or knew about it beforehand.
Congress Eyes Khashoggi and Carnage in Yemen
The resolution, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders and sponsored by members of both parties, invokes the War Powers Act of 1973, which states that Congress can direct the president to remove US armed forces from “hostilities abroad” if no declaration of war or legal authorization has been granted. If it passes, US forces will still be allowed to launch operations against Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
An earlier version of the resolution failed in March, when 10 Democrats joined a Republican majority in a 44 to 55 vote against the legislation. Since then, the Khashoggi murder has exploded across the headlines, along with more deadly attacks on Yemeni civilians — including a school bus full of children destroyed by a US-made bomb. Harrowing images of mass starvation have also appeared in the Western media, illustrating the dire impacts of the Saudi military blockades that prevent food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies from reaching desperate populations.
In August, the United Nations estimated that about 6,600 civilians have been killed and another 10,500 have been injured by the conflict in Yemen. The actual death toll is likely much higher as famine and outbreaks of disease continue to spread, according to Sarah Margon, the director Human Rights Watch in Washington, DC. Margon said the US must stop adding fuel to the fire by supplying military aid to the Saudi coalition, which is blocking humanitarian aid. Without US support, the Saudis are more likely to negotiate a ceasefire that would facilitate the flow of aid, and there would be “significantly less death” in Yemen.
“The UN has warned that Yemen could be facing the worst famine in 100 years if the conflict does not end and the economy collapses, which we take very seriously if the current situation persists,” Margon told reporters on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) warned that the US would remain complicit with “war crimes” and “murderous and brutal Saudi attacks on civilians and others in Yemen” if Congress does not pull US support from the Saudi-led coalition.
“The blood is on our hands if we continue to support the Saudis in this brutal effort,” Blumenthal said in a speech on the Senate floor.
Leading Democrats and a smattering of isolationist Republicans are lining up in support of the war powers resolution, including Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), who reminded her colleagues about the Khashoggi scandal swirling around the Saudi crown prince.
“Remember who we’re dealing with here,” Warren said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “The CIA has reportedly confirmed the clear involvement of senior Saudi officials up to and including the Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman in the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi last month. That tells us everything we need to know about this so-called ally.”
Mattis and Pompeo Brief the Senate Without Gina Haspel
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis ran interference on Wednesday morning at a closed-door briefing with the Senate on the war in Yemen, in an attempt to rally opposition to the war powers resolution.
The White House enraged critics on both sides of the aisle by excluding CIA Director Gina Haspel, who briefed the president on audio tapes linking the Saudi crown prince to Khashoggi’s murder but did not join Mattis and Pompeo before the Senate on Wednesday. Trump has attempted to absolve Prince Muhammad of his role in Khashoggi’s murder, but the CIA’s own review of the tapes concluded that the prince likely ordered the killing. Both Trump and Michael Bolton, his national security advisor, have said that they never listened to the tapes directly.
Kizer said it was unclear as of Tuesday whether the resolution had enough votes to pass with the simple majority required by the War Powers Act, but supporters see a “path to victory” in a bipartisan block of lawmakers who have supported curbing military assistance to Saudi Arabia in the past. She also pointed to recent polling showing that up to 75 percent of the US public opposes providing military support to Saudi Arabia.
“Many Americans don’t even know we are involved in this war, and when they do find out, it becomes a clear values proposition for them — that they don’t want their government supporting war crimes and the intentional starvation of millions of people,” Kizer said.
A resolution to end US support for the Saudi war in Yemen may have trouble passing the Republican-held House before the end of the year, but the new House Democratic majority is expected to introduce similar legislation to curtail the US role in Yemen in January. This could set the stage for a showdown with President Trump, who risks a revolt in Congress if he vetoes efforts to curb US involvement in the bloody war.
Ben Rhodes, co-chair of National Security Action and former deputy national security advisor to President Obama, said Obama-era policies meant to moderate Saudi behavior by leveraging military and intelligence support failed to bring about peace in Yemen. Trump has only expanded aid to the Saudis, with fewer conditions. A Senate resolution to end support for US involvement in the war would send a powerful message to Trump and the rest of the world.
“This bill could send a very important message that US support to Saudi Arabia is coming to an end,” Rhodes said on Tuesday.
This story has been updated.