The Republican-controlled Senate took the rare step on Thursday of defying President Trump, invoking its war powers authority for the first time to demand a halt to U.S. participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Seven Republicans joined all Senate Democrats to demand, by a vote of 56 to 41, ending U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in the conflict in Yemen. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Saudi airstrikes, and the war has led to what is now widely considered the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. U.S. support has included providing targeting intelligence and refueling Saudi aircraft.
In a separate step, the Senate unanimously blamed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the gruesome Oct. 2 slaying of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The measures underscored the anger lawmakers are feeling over Trump’s handling of the killing and of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia as the Yemen war descends into a catastrophically deadly stalemate.
Trump has questioned U.S. intelligence that concluded Mohammed played a role in the Khashoggi killing. But in their bipartisan war powers resolution and condemnation of the prince, the Senate signaled to the U.S. ally that it is not as willing to forgive the murder of a U.S.-based journalist and outspoken critic of the Saudi regime. The Yemen war, where Saudi Arabia is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, is one of Mohammed’s favored projects.
“In the last three years, 85,000 children have died and millions are on the brink of starvation,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a sponsor of the resolution. “We must tell Saudi Arabia that the United States will no longer support their despotic regime's role in the horrific war in Yemen.”
Both measures, however, were largely symbolic because the House has no plans to take them up this year. And Trump has threatened to veto the Yemen measure, arguing it might hurt U.S.-Saudi relations.
In approving the resolution, the Senate was invoking its war powers authority for the first time since the War Powers Act was passed in 1973. The law is intended as a congressional check on a president’s ability to wage war, allowing lawmakers to order the executive branch to end military conflicts not approved by Congress.
"Both progressives and conservatives have made a profound statement that 45 years after the passage of the War Powers Act … finally the United States Senate has come together to use that authority for the first time," Sanders said.
Republicans who voted to end support for the conflict were Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Steve Daines of Montana, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Todd Young of Indiana.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who last week voted to advance the Yemen measure as way to express his anger with the administration's initial refusal to allow CIA Director Gina Haspel to brief lawmakers on Khashoggi’s killing, did not vote Thursday. He said he supported the goal “to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for their abuses in Yemen and go beyond that," but questioned the resolution's use of Congress' war powers authority.
There was broader support during a procedural vote on the Yemen resolution Wednesday, when 60 senators supported it. GOP Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Michael D. Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska supported the procedural measure but opposed the final resolution.
If it dies as expected at the end of the current session, the Yemen resolution could come back next year, when Democrats will control the House.
Moran, one of the Republicans who supported the measure, hinted at a revival.
“I am certain this will be a matter of debate early in the next Congress, and I will continue to support promoting peace and security on the Arabian Peninsula,” he said.
In the history of U.S. foreign policy, Saudi Arabia has frequently gotten a pass, with its huge oil supply and billions of dollars to spend outweighing human rights abuses and other concerns.
Few U.S. presidents, however, have been as solicitous as Trump. His son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, was recruited by the Saudis to become a friend and ally to the similarly young and inexperienced crown prince, and the two are in frequent contact.
Trump’s first trip overseas as president was to the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Trump often claims, incorrectly, that the Saudis are prepared to spend $150 billion on U.S. weapons. Most important, perhaps, is that Saudi Arabia is an enthusiastic partner in challenging Iran, also a major power in the region.
“Today the Senate showed that we won’t stand by silently as the United States supports a war that’s killed thousands of people and forced millions more to the brink of famine,” said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, where Khashoggi lived. “We won’t enable a president who chooses to cover up for Saudi leadership instead of standing up for American values.”
The other measure that passed Thursday, on a voice vote, explicitly condemned Mohammed for the killing of Khashoggi, who was strangled and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a hit squad that reportedly included several members of the Saudi royal court.
Drafted by Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the condemnation measure states that the Senate believes Mohammed “is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi” and calls on the kingdom to “ensure appropriate accountability for all those responsible” for the death.