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House Moves Again to Cut Off Support to Saudi War in Yemen

July 11, 2019
In The News

WASHINGTON — The House voted on Thursday to cut off American support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and to prevent the Trump administration from using its emergency authority to transfer munitions to the kingdom, delivering twin rebukes as Democrats sought to leave their stamp on military policy.

The votes were the opening salvo as Democrats begin an amendment blitz that could reshape Congress’s annual defense policy bill to broadly restrict the president’s war powers and serve as an indictment of the president’s foreign policy.

The bill is shaping up as the next ideological test for Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she tries to balance the interests of the freshman centrists representing Republican-leaning districts with those of her left flank, which might resist passing a military policy bill that does not reflect its liberal priorities. Some liberal members have complained about the sprawling bill’s total military spending — $733 billion — but moderates are reluctant to cut that number, which is already below President Trump’s demands and the Senate’s $750 billion.

This is coming on the heels of a bruising fight over a border spending bill in which the House’s liberal version was ultimately jettisoned for a Senate bill with few controls over how the money would be spent.

“I have people in my caucus that do not believe in muscular foreign policy and muscular national defense like I do,” said Representative Mikie Sherrill, a moderate Democrat who captured her New Jersey district from a Republican last year and is a former Navy helicopter pilot. “But the choice comes down to, in conference, the Senate version or the House version, and without strong support from the caucus, I think we’ve seen what that looks like.”

Still, liberals appeared to be heartened by the way the bill was shaping up, not just on Middle East policy but also on social matters. The House approved an amendment by Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, that would reinstate qualified transgender people to military service, reversing the president’s transgender ban. Another amendment passed on Thursday would prohibit the president, the vice president and cabinet members from contracting with the federal government, a jab at the Trump Organization’s continuing work with the federal government. Still another approved by the House would prohibitDefense Department funds from being spent at properties owned by Mr. Trump.

A measure championed by Representative Gregory W. Meeks, Democrat of New York, would prohibit the Pentagon from naming defense assets after someone who served or held a leadership position in the Confederacy.

But the most consequential amendments on Thursday continued Congress’s monthslong effort to intervene in the Yemen conflict and punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of the dissident Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Lawmakers voted 236 to 193 to prohibit the administration from using funds to support the Saudi-led military operations — either with munitions or with intelligence — against the Houthis in Yemen, a conflict that has killed thousands of civilians and resulted in a widespread famine in what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Mr. Trump vetoed legislation in April that invoked the War Powers Act to cut off American military support to the campaign.

“We have to, at this moment, have a check on this president,” said Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California and the author of the Yemen amendment. “There is no priority higher than stopping war in the Middle East and the famine in Yemen.”

The defense policy bill, he said, “is the best vehicle for us to achieve that.”

In an answer to the administration’s decision in May to declare an emergency over Iran in order to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Congress’s wishes, the House on Thursday voted 246 to 180 on a measure by Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, to block those sales. The emergency declaration infuriated lawmakers from both parties in both the House and the Senate.

Lawmakers also passed on Thursday a bipartisan measure led by Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, that would require the director of national intelligence to publicly identify the parties responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing and impose sanctions on them. The Central Intelligence Agency concluded in the fall that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the murder. But Mr. Trump has yet to acknowledge that finding, and when grilled by lawmakers, administration officials have declined to hold the Saudi ruler responsible.

Liberal Democrats are now lobbying their members to support a strange-bedfellows amendment by Mr. Khanna, an outspoken liberal, and Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida and one of Mr. Trump’s strongest House allies, that would prevent the use of funds for war with Iran, unless expressly approved by Congress. A similar amendment on the Senate side failed last month by a vote of 50 to 40. It has won the backing of strong conservatives — the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity has lobbied members to support it and announced it would score the vote — as well as a cadre of centrist Democratic freshmen with national security backgrounds.

The House will vote in the coming days on amendments that would phase out the authorization of military force passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and cut off all sales of surface-to-air munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for the next year.

The defense policy bill has traditionally been a bipartisan exercise, but House Republicans have come out strongly against this year’s version, declaring it a partisan document, a charge Democrats on the Armed Services Committee have hotly contested.

If the bill clears the House, as early as Friday, it must still be reconciled with a Senate version that is considerably less confrontational. The House version includes a ban on using military construction funds for the president’s wall along the Mexican border, while the Senate version allocates $3.6 billion to replenish military-construction funds that the president hopes to seize for the southwestern border.