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Senate breaks with Trump on Saudi-led war in Yemen

March 13, 2019
In The News

The Senate broke with President Trump on Wednesday over the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, paving the way for a veto showdown with the White House.

Senators voted 54-46 to pass a resolution requiring the president to withdraw any troops in or "affecting" Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al Qaeda.

GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Steve Daines (Mont.), Mike Lee (Utah), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Todd Young(Ind.) voted with Democrats on the resolution. 

The chamber first passed the resolution in December, but it did not pass the GOP-controlled House before the end of the 115th Congress and was reintroduced this year.

The Senate vote comes hours after the White House formally threatened to veto the resolution, arguing it was “flawed” and has an “erroneous premise.”

“The joint resolution would raise serious constitutional concerns to the extent that it seeks to override the President’s determination as Commander in Chief,” the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said.

The resolution still needs to pass the House before it heads to Trump’s desk. Senate supporters believe it could get a vote in the lower chamber as soon as Thursday, paving the way for potentially the first veto of Trump’s presidency.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said he expected the House would take up the legislation in the next couple of weeks.

“Our office is working with leadership and the [Congressional Progressive Caucus] to finalize a date of when we will pass the Senate [War Powers Resolution] and send it to the president's desk,” his office added.

Wednesday’s vote comes a day before the Senate is likely to also pass a resolution of disapproval blocking Trump’s emergency declaration — setting up a one-two punch that will force the president to reject back-to-back legislation from Capitol Hill.

“I’m sure Republicans want to ... peel two Band-Aids off at once; it hurts less,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a co-sponsor of the Yemen legislation. “This will be the first two vetoes coming in rapid succession. Maybe Republicans did notice the 2018 election.”

Saudi Arabia has emerged as a growing split between Trump and Congress in the wake of the slaying last fall of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was a critic of the Saudi government.

Trump has refused to pin the blame of Khashoggi’s death on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, saying in a widely panned statement late last year that “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t" order the slaying. Trump added that the U.S. "may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder" of Khashoggi.

Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. The Saudi government maintained that the killing was carried out by rogue agents as part of an interrogation that went off track — an explanation that has been met with heavy skepticism by lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Trump’s stance has put him at odds with Republicans in Congress as well as his own intelligence community, which has reportedly determined that the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing of Khashoggi.

The Trump administration also dispatched officials to Capitol Hill to brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about its investigation, ordered by members of the panel last year, into Khashoggi’s death. But the closed-door briefing only infuriated Republicans, who characterized the meeting as a “waste of time” where they “learned very little.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said if the administration wanted to try to squash the Yemen resolution they should have made more progress on the Khashoggi situation.

“We need to take this step to show while they don’t care about it, we do. ... If they had taken some meaningful step in the Khashoggi situation they might have increased the odds that some of us wouldn’t vote to refudiate their efforts in Yemen, but they’ve done nothing,” said Kaine. “So that means you’re going to get a lot of votes for the Yemen resolution.”

But frustrations on Capitol Hill with the U.S.-Saudi relationship run deeper than just Khashoggi’s death.

The only override of a veto from former President Obama was when Congress shot down his attempt to block legislation allowing families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts. The veto override passed the Senate 97-1.

And senators have tried to pass the Yemen resolution for years over concerns that Saudi Arabia wasn’t doing enough to limit civilian casualties with its strikes in Yemen. They’ve put a blockade on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and were able to successfully pass the resolution in December. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential candidate who is co-sponsoring the Yemen resolution, said the Senate’s vote made Wednesday an “extremely important day.”

“We can finally begin the process of reasserting Congress’s responsibility over war making. As every school child should know, Article 1 of the Constitution clearly states that it is Congress, not the president, that has the power to declare war,” Sanders said.

Most Republicans voted against the Yemen resolution on Wednesday, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urging senators to oppose it.

“I believe it is right for senators to have grave concerns over some aspects of Saudi Arabia’s behavior, particularly the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. That is not what this resolution is about. ... If senators continue to have concerns about Saudi behavior, they should raise them in hearings, and directly with the administration, and directly with Saudi officials — as I have done,” McConnell said.

McConnell added that while the U.S. objective should be to end the years-long war in Yemen, “this resolution will not end this conflict.”

But foreign policy has emerged as a consistent sticking point between Republicans and Trump, who put overhauling the party’s foreign policy at the center of his presidential campaign.

In addition to Saudi Arabia, Republicans passed Russia sanctions legislation in 2017 despite objections from the White House. And GOP senators fumed during a closed-door meeting with Vice President Pence late last year after Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria caught them flat-footed — the president has since backed off his decision.

Murphy acknowledged that the only reason the Yemen resolution was getting through the Senate is because Democrats were able to pick up handful of GOP senators, adding that their “patience is running thin for the president’s foreign policy."

“[But] we’re only getting a couple of Republicans on Yemen,” he added. “We shouldn’t overstate the Republican Trump renaissance.”