The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate begins historic debate on ending U.S. support for Saudi-led war in Yemen

Senators spoke on Dec. 12 after voting to start debate on a measure to end U.S. support for Saudi military actions in Yemen. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Senate voted Wednesday to formally start debating a measure to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, setting up what is likely to be the first among several bipartisan rebukes of President Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia that senators hope to deliver.

The 60-to-37 vote exceeded the expectations of the Yemen resolution’s supporters, who had guessed that most of the 14 Republicans who backed an opening procedural measure last month would peel away as it advanced. But 11 Republicans — including the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James E. Risch (R-Idaho), a Trump ally — joined all Democrats in voting to start debating the resolution.

Rebuking Trump, senators back effort to suspend U.S. support for Saudi-led war in Yemen

The development sets up a likely vote Thursday to pass the resolution, provided even part of this coalition holds together. Its passage would send a significant political message to Trump that the status quo on relations with Saudi Arabia is no longer acceptable and also would be the first time the Senate had successfully invoked the War Powers Resolution since it became law in 1973.

Lawmakers have launched several efforts to condemn, chastise or curtail traditional U.S. support for Saudi Arabia after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist.

Support for several of those efforts — particularly the Yemen resolution from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) — grew dramatically after the CIA determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was most probably responsible for Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, findings that Trump has dismissed as he continues to embrace the prince.

Wednesday’s Senate vote came just hours after CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed House leaders about the agency’s assessment that Mohammed probably ordered the killing of Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi leadership.

It was the second time in as many weeks that Haspel has given lawmakers a closed-door look at the CIA’s classified examination of Khashoggi’s death. It is based in part on intercepts of communications between the crown prince and one of his top aides, who investigators think oversaw the team that killed and dismembered the journalist in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

After Haspel briefed senators last week, they accused Mohammed of complicity in the death of Khashoggi. Later this week, senators are expected to vote on a resolution condemning Mohammed as responsible for Khashoggi’s death.

But in the House, senior members have been far more tight-lipped about their plans.

The Sanders-Lee resolution is all but guaranteed to be dead on arrival in the House, where lawmakers narrowly voted Wednesday to block consideration of any similar resolution. Specifically, the rule change the House adopted — tucked into a larger procedural measure about an agriculture bill — prevents rank-and-file members from demanding a House floor vote on any Yemen measure that seeks to invoke the War Powers Resolution.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has committed to holding comprehensive hearings early next year on a variety of issues relating to U.S. policy on Saudi Arabia, including the war in Yemen. But those plans lack the specificity of activity underway in the Senate, where lawmakers are already planning how to pivot from a successful vote on the Sanders-Lee measure to work on others in the new year. Chief among their new targets is a bill, sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), that would impose sanctions on Saudi officials found to be responsible for Khashoggi’s death. The measure also would stop the transfer of anything but purely defensive weapons to Saudi Arabia until it ends it combat operations in Yemen.

When House leaders emerged from the briefing with Haspel on Wednesday, none claimed that her testimony had proved Mohammed’s culpability — in stark contrast to what senators said after their session with the CIA director last week. The House members said they could not discuss their response to the briefing, noting that it was classified.

The full House is expected to be briefed Thursday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who also spoke with senators late last month. Both have adopted a stance closer to that of Trump, who despite having been briefed on the CIA’s findings, emphasizes that Mohammed told him on several occasions that he was not involved in Khashoggi’s death.

In an interview Wednesday on Fox News, Pompeo reinforced the president’s position, adding that the administration is committed to accountability in Khashoggi’s death.

Pompeo challenges accuracy of reports that CIA is confident of Saudi prince’s involvement in Khashoggi death

“I’ve spoken to the crown prince a number of times since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and it is absolutely America’s intent to hold everyone accountable who was responsible for this,” Pompeo said.

But he said nothing about penalizing Mohammed and did not answer when asked whether he believed the crown prince’s assertion that he was not involved in the killing.

Pompeo also repeated Trump’s claim that the CIA has not actually determined that Mohammed is to blame, suggesting that news reports were “inaccurate” but without saying how.

That put him at odds with senators, including Republicans, who told reporters after their meeting with Haspel last week that they had no doubt about the prince’s culpability.

“If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said: “There’s not a smoking gun — there’s a smoking saw.” He was referring to the bone saw that investigators think was used to dismember Khashoggi’s body.

Later Wednesday, Graham and Menendez were expected to outline their plans to push for sanctions, halt arms sales and use other measures to punish Saudi Arabia next year.