The resolution passed in the Senate last month with the support of seven Republicans. Thursday’s action in the House marked the first time both chambers have voted to invoke the same war-powers resolution to end U.S. military engagement in a foreign conflict — and is the latest instance of Congress’s challenging Trump’s decisions as commander in chief, though it united Republicans and Democrats far less than similar reproaches concerning the administration’s postures toward Syria, Afghanistan and NATO.
Yemen’s protracted civil war has left an estimated 20 million people at risk of starvation and hundreds of thousands exposed to a cholera epidemic, with civilian sites — such as ports necessary to import humanitarian aid — becoming targets in the conflict.
U.S. participation in the conflict began under President Barack Obama as an effort to share intelligence and provide logistical assistance, including aerial refueling, to a coalition of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia. Though Trump halted the refueling mission late last year, his administration has defended other support for Saudi Arabia — including weapons sales — as necessary to check the spread of Iran’s influence in the region.
Not all in the GOP agree with that position, and several influential Republicans are exploring proposals that would end weapons transfers to the kingdom. But most have objected to using a war-powers resolution to change U.S. policy on Saudi Arabia.
“The fundamental premise of this resolution is flawed because U.S. forces are not engaged in hostilities against the Houthis in Yemen,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said on the House floor Thursday. “If we want to cut off economic assistance or logistic assistance to Saudi, there’s a way to do that. . . . I think we’re using the wrong vehicle here.”
McCaul also objected to the fact that the resolution “stays silent” on Iran’s role in Yemen’s civil war, saying such an omission undermines ongoing peace negotiations.
Democrats see the war-powers resolution as vital to reasserting Congress’s right to dictate when and where the United States engages in military conflict, regardless of whether the Pentagon puts personnel on the ground.
“No blank checks anymore. No blank checks to say that the administration can run wars without getting the approval of Congress,” Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said on the House floor Thursday. “We cannot just sit back and say, ‘Well, you know, we have difficulties with Iran, so we’re going to look the other way.’ . . . No more war in which we’re complicit where a wholesale population is starving.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday rejected criticism of the U.S. role in the Yemen conflict, saying American involvement has led to a significant decline in civilian casualties.
“And so it’s been a good thing that we’ve helped them,” he said, noting that the United States had contributed “just short of a billion dollars” in humanitarian aid, while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have contributed more. Iran, he added, had contributed nothing.
“That often goes unnoticed by folks on Capitol Hill,” he added.
Before passing the resolution, the House defeated an attempt to revise it by adding language condemning a global boycott movement targeting Israeli-made products. The move, engineered by Republicans, would have forced the measure back to the Senate if passed, instead of clearing it for Trump’s consideration.
Republicans accused Democrats of blocking votes on other measures rejecting the boycott of Israel. McCaul said that without the change, the Yemen resolution was “pro-Iran and anti-Israel.”
The Democrats’ most committed Israel advocates in the House appealed to their colleagues not to fall for what House Majority Leader Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) characterized as a “cynical political ploy” to kill the Yemen resolution by “using Israel as a partisan cudgel.”
Previous attempts to curtail support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen fell short, but Khashoggi’s killing inspired bipartisan condemnation and a unanimous resolution in the Senate holding the Saudi crown prince responsible for the killing.
Lawmakers have pursued other measures to rebuke Trump for his embrace of Saudi leaders, most notably by invoking their power under the Global Magnitsky Act to force the president to name and sanction the officials responsible for Khashoggi’s killing. Trump ignored lawmakers’ deadline, angering members of his party, some of whom joined the effort to pass the Yemen resolution.
And while the Yemen measure’s passage in the Senate and the House is historic, support for it is not strong enough to overcome a presidential veto, making it likely that the effort will ultimately be only a gesture of disapproval.
On Thursday, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who sponsored the Senate resolution, joined Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), author of a previous iteration of the House resolution, and others to send a letter to Trump asking him to sign the measure.
If the president rejects their entreaties, it is unclear what will follow.
Lawmakers have blocked new arms deals with Saudi Arabia, but the bipartisan group seeking support for a measure to end weapons transfers and impose sanctions on the officials believed to be responsible for Khashoggi’s death has yet to secure consent from the Senate’s Republican leaders to advance that legislation.
In the House, where Democrats have a majority, several lawmakers have proposed tailored measures to address alleged human rights infractions by Saudi leaders. The most recent, offered by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), seeks to impose sanctions preventing any foreign nationals who had a role in Khashoggi’s death from holding or securing U.S. visas without the president’s intervention. Such a move could complicate diplomatic visits to the United States by Saudi officials.