The Senate appears increasingly likely to pass a War Powers Resolution designed to cut off U.S. military support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s fighting in Yemen, in what would be a swift reversal of an identical vote just months ago.
The measure is a rebuke to the Trump administration that has gained momentum amid public outrage over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and grim headlines about the toll of the Saudi campaign on Yemeni civilians.
But what the resolution will accomplish if passed is a far murkier matter. The Trump administration has defended its ongoing support of the Saudi coalition and has said the president will veto any congressional bid to curtail that assistance. The House is almost certain not to take up the measure before Democrats take over in January.
Still, the Senate is moving forward and will likely vote on the matter on Wednesday, according to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who opposes it. After it clears a couple of a procedural hurdles, the resolution will require a simple majority to pass, thanks to the particular parliamentary procedure that brought it to the floor.
“I just think you should get to the resolution as quick as possible because that in and of itself is a strong enough signal to the Saudis, and a signal that we’re going to come back and finish it off next year,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of the co-sponsors of the measure.
Murphy and his two co-sponsors, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, could try again in 2019 with a Democratic-controlled House — a similar measure fell short 201-187 in November — but the Senate would have to pass the resolution again. Corker is retiring and it’s not clear that his successor on the Foreign Relations committee, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, would help shepherd any legislation tying the administration’s hands on Yemen. The incoming chairman has been a reliable ally of the Trump administration. An aide for Risch said on Thursday he will wait until after the vote to comment on next year; Corker, asked whether his colleague would bring it forward again, shrugged and said “Um, maybe?”
The resolution would still require only a simple majority to pass, but its supporters would almost certainly need to muster a veto-proof majority to override President Trump. The vote next week may provide clues as to whether that is possible.
The Lee-Sanders resolution, as it has come to be known, would direct the president to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen.” The Trump administration is arguing that the “fundamental premise” of the resolution is flawed because ”United States forces are not engaged in hostilities between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi forces in Yemen.” Critics argue that the kind of military support being provided to Saudi Arabia—intelligence, targeting assistance and, until recently, aerial refueling—does not meet the legal threshold that would require the administration to seek a war authorization from Congress.
“My observation is that it will have no effect whatsoever on policy because it doesn’t do anything,” Corker told reporters Thursday. “Even if it passed the House, it passed the Senate and the president actually signed it—which I’m sure he wouldn’t—it still would not affect any policy. We’re not refueling planes now.”
Asked specifically whether the resolution would curtail intelligence and targeting support according to his reading of the text, Corker was firm: “No. All of that kind of stuff is up in the ‘whereas’ [nonbinding] portion of the bill—the way they’ve written it, no.”
“I’m not being negative on it,” he added. “It sends a very strong signal and I know that’s what they wish to do.”
There are other legislative measures floating around the Senate designed to exact penalties on Riyadh and shift U.S. military policy on Yemen. Some lawmakers support pulling back military support from Saudi Arabia in general but oppose using the War Powers Act to do so. Those bills are also the subject of behind-the-scenes negotiations on Capitol Hill, including a resolution officially condemning the murder of Khashoggi, and a more substantive bill from Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Todd Young, R-Ind., that would suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and sanction those responsible for Khashoggi’s death and individuals blocking aid to victims of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Corker is seeking to mark up the Menendez-Young bill in committee next week; he has offered some suggestions that keep the “substance intact,” he says, and would support it if the changes are made.
Corker, Menendez, and other lawmakers closely involved in discussions said Thursday that there is no plan to try to amend the Sanders-Lee resolution with any of the other proposals.
“My guess is only thing we wind up voting for [next week] is Lee-Sanders,” Corker said. “My guess is it will pass.”
Murphy was more circumspect, noting that he’s waiting to hear from Senate leadership.
One thing that the proponents of the various different measures under consideration agree on is the need to limit the kind of amendments that lawmakers can bring up, because the War Powers Act hasn’t been used in decades. Lawmakers want to avoid a so-called “vote-a-rama”, in which any senator can force a vote on any amendment, whether or not it is related to the underlying measure. Supporters of the resolution don’t want its detractors to use the amendment process to water it down, but beyond that, both Corker and Murphy argued that allowing a vote-a-rama could set a worrisome precedent for how the War Powers Act is wielded by future Congresses.
For Corker, the fear is that the War Powers Act would become a vehicle for lawmakers to force votes on irrelevant issues.
“You’ve got a bunch of good government guys on our side of the aisle who don’t want the War Powers Act being utilized in a manner to create votes on all kinds of things unrelated to War Powers,” Corker said, calling it “a really bad precedent.”
“Think about all the places we’re engaged, [like] all throughout North Africa—so any senator at any time could bring up any of those countries and all of the sudden you’re doing this again.”
Murphy suggested that it would create a chilling effect.
“I don’t think anyone would ever use the War Powers Act to try to send a message on foreign policy if it would then force votes on healthcare, immigration and oil drilling,” he said. “I know this process hasn’t been used in 45 years, but I think you should preserve it for the future by not allowing the amendments to get too far afield.”
No matter its fate after next week, if the Senate does pass the Sanders-Lee resolution, it will still be a historic vote, Murphy argued. Critics of military support to the Kingdom have for years sought to get legislation to the floor to curtail American involvement in the Yemen conflict; the Senate voted down a similar measure in March, 55-44. The new momentum hints at the depth of frustration on Capitol Hill with both Riyadh and the Trump administration’s handling of the Khashoggi affair.
“The underlying War Powers Resolution is super meaningful,” Murphy said. “I know we’ve gotten kind of sidetracked by these bills and potential amendments [but] the United States Congress has never passed a War Powers Resolution to pull the United States out of hostilities abroad.
“If we pass the underlying resolution, that’s a very consequential action.”