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Opinion Congress puts out the unwelcome mat for the Saudi crown prince

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court via Reuters)

In anticipation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s arrival in Washington early next week, the U.S. Senate is planning to condemn Saudi killing of civilians in Yemen and pressure the Trump administration to curtail U.S. military assistance in that effort. The internal Senate battle over exactly how to send that message is unfolding behind the scenes now.

There’s broad frustration in Congress over Saudi Arabia’s handling of the Yemen operation, which according to Human Rights Watch has included at least 85 “unlawful coalition airstrikes” resulting in almost 1,000 civilian deaths. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights office said in September that coalition airstrikes remain “the leading cause of civilian casualties.” The Saudis and their allies have also imposed a blockade that has fueled mass hunger and a cholera outbreak that has spread to more than 1 million people.

In June, the Senate narrowly defeated a resolution, put forth by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), that would have blocked U.S. sales of precision munitions to Saudi Arabia. The House overwhelmingly passed a resolution in November stating that American provision of targeting information and refueling assistance to Saudi warplanes is unauthorized under current law.

Currently lawmakers are planning two competing bills, both meant to send a strong message to Saudi Arabia and the crown prince that there will be consequences if the assault on Yemeni civilians doesn’t stop. One or both of them could hit the Senate floor late this week or early next week.

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Murphy, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) are pushing for a floor vote on their bill under the War Powers Act that would require the withdrawal of U.S. forces from “hostilities” in Yemen other than those specifically involving the fight against terrorism. As a privileged resolution, it would go straight to the floor and require only 50 votes to pass.

But there are two problems with the Sanders-Lee-Murphy effort. It invokes the War Powers Act in an unprecedented way and places Republicans in the awkward position of relying on a law many of them consider unconstitutional. Also, it leaves a loophole for the Defense Department, which is already arguing that U.S. military action in Yemen does not fall under the definition of “hostilities.” Some say the bill will not pass, much less survive an assured presidential veto.

For all those reasons, Sens. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) are pushing a resolution that would require the secretary of state to repeatedly certify that Saudi Arabia is engaged in “an urgent and good faith effort” to negotiate an end to the war and taking “appropriate measures” to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there.

“There’s a bipartisan sense of urgency to pass legislation to help end the civil war in Yemen,” Shaheen told me. “My concern is that we pass legislation that can withstand legal scrutiny and still influence Saudi military operations to save innocent lives.”

The antiwar group Code Pink protested outside Shaheen’s office after a HuffPost article claimed that the Young-Shaheen bill would “effectively greenlight continued Saudi-UAE operations for months.” But supporters of that approach argue that it’s simply more likely to pass and therefore more likely to achieve the desired outcome, namely, to pressure Saudi Arabia to change its behavior.

Young has long pushed the Trump administration to use its leverage with Saudi Arabia to improve the humanitarian situation in Yemen. He held up the nomination of State Department legal adviser Jennifer Newstead until the administration secured the delivery of cranes to Yemen’s largest port, needed to offload food and medicine for the starving population.

“The only durable solution to the humanitarian crisis is an end to the civil war,” Young told me. “With full recognition of Iran’s reckless and unacceptable activities in Yemen, we must maintain pressure on the Saudis to do all they can to end the civil war in Yemen.”

A small group of Senate Democrats met late last week to debate which path to take. Since the Young-Shaheen bill would probably have to go through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all eyes are on Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who have yet to publicly weigh in.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is organizing a classified briefing for all senators Wednesday afternoon on Yemen. The Foreign Relations Committee might hold a business meeting Wednesday where the Young-Shaheen bill could be marked up. That sets up any and all floor action for as early as Thursday, although that could slip to next week.

The crown prince arrives in Washington on March 19. In his Capitol Hill meetings, he is sure to hear about Yemen as well as criticism of his crackdown on leading Saudi officials and businessmen. The crown prince calls it an anti-corruption operation; critics call it a campaign to purge rivals and seize billions of dollars outside any defensible legal process.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that many of the Saudi officials and businessmen imprisoned at Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton were subject to coercion and physical abuse. Seventeen people were hospitalized and Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani was found dead with a twisted neck, according to the report. The Saudi government denied the accusations.

Regardless of what happens with the legislation, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would be wise to come to Washington with clear explanations of how Saudi Arabia intends to avoid killing Yemeni civilians and alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe there. If he doesn’t, U.S. support for him and his military campaigns will only further erode.