The Senate voted Wednesday afternoon to advance a resolution that would cut off U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the first time a resolution targeting the war has been approved and a sign of how fast the debate in Washington over the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia has shifted.
The resolution would invoke the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which prevents the president from introducing U.S. troops into an armed conflict without congressional authorization. U.S.
support for the campaign, which has included intelligence cooperation, target assistance, and midair refueling, began in 2015 under the Obama administration. Under mounting criticism of the war—which may have directly killed as many as 50,000 Yemenis, not counting deaths from the famine and disease outbreaks caused by the conflict—the Trump administration announced earlier this month it would halt providing midair refueling, but the airstrikes have continued.
A similar resolution, sponsored by Sens. Chris Murphy, Bernie Sanders, and Mike Lee, was tabled in March by a vote of 55–44, with 10 Democrats including Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez and Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed siding with the Republican majority.
Today’s motion to discharge a resolution, sponsored by the same bipartisan trio, passed 63-37, a significantly larger than expected margin. This time, all 49 Senate Democrats voted yea, as did 14 Republicans. Those who switched their votes from March included Lindsey Graham, who appears to have had a last minute change of heart, and outgoing Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who in comments today referred to Saudi Arabia as a “semi-important country” and its controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as “out of control.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both briefed the Senate this morning to urge them to vote against the measure and defend the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia. The briefing evidently didn’t work and may even have backfired. Several senators, notably Menendez, voiced outrage that CIA Director Gina Haspel was prevented from testifying on the Khashoggi killing. Mattis also prompted some eye-rolling by telling reporters there was no “smoking gun” connecting the crown prince to Khashoggi’s murder, even though the CIA has concluded he ordered the operation.
The administration certainly seems unlikely to wind down this war on its own. Trump issued a full-throated defense of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and Crown Prince Mohammed this month as did Pompeo in today’s Wall Street Journal. The U.S. has reportedly “slammed the breaks” on a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a limited ceasefire in the conflict due to Saudi objections.
But outside the White House, the brutality of the Yemen conflict and American culpability in it have become harder to ignore since the last vote thanks to a series of tragedies, including one in August in which 40 children on a school bus were killed by a bomb supplied by the U.S. The U.N. has warned that as much as half of Yemen’s population could soon be on the brink of famine. But the killing of journalist and U.S. resident Khashoggi is clearly what has done more than anything else to change the tenor of the debate.
The resolution still has a long way to go. Today’s procedural vote will force a full floor debate and amendments could still be introduced. According to Murphy, Corker has indicated he could change his vote before it goes to a full debate if the administration takes further action on its own to pressure Saudi Arabia. It’s also unlikely to pass the House in this session. Earlier this month, Republican House leaders used a measure inserted into a bill about removing gray wolves from endangered species list (really) to block a floor vote on a Yemen measure in the House. Similar maneuvers could come into play in the senate in the coming days.
Still, the measure, and the fact that the Senate will debate it, is a significant sign of progress for the campaign to halt the U.S. role in the controversial war. That pressure is unlikely to dissipate next year when Democrats regain control over the House. However this particular resolution fares, any move by Congress to reassert its oversight powers on U.S. foreign policy is welcome.