Senate Votes To End U.S. Support For War In Yemen, Rebuking Trump And Saudi Arabia

Dec 12, 2018
Originally published on December 13, 2018 6:37 pm

Updated Dec. 13 at 5:21 p.m. ET

The Senate voted with support from lawmakers in both parties Thursday to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. The 56-41 vote marks the first time the Senate utilized powers granted under the 1973 War Powers Act, which gives Congress the power to demand an end to military actions.

While the House likely won't vote on the measure, the bipartisan vote is a major rebuke to Saudi Arabia, long a key U.S. ally.

"Today we tell the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia that we will not be part of their military adventurism," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a key sponsor of the resolution, said shortly before the final vote.

Immediately afterward, the Senate unanimously approved a second resolution condemning the killing of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi and pinning blame for the dissident's death on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The effort to stop American involvement in Yemen is still a long way from a done deal. The House would have to pass the resolution by year's end and President Trump would have to sign it — two steps that likely will not happen. Still, earlier this week, Sanders called the vote "a profound message."

"It says to the country, it says to the world, the United States Senate — hopefully in good numbers today — says we will not be part of this brutal, horrific war in Yemen led by an undemocratic, despotic regime," Sanders told NPR. "That's a profound statement that will reverberate all over the world."

The years-long conflict, viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has spiraled into a growing humanitarian disaster. The U.S. military has provided refueling for Saudi aircraft carrying out strikes — assistance the Trump administration ended amid growing criticism — and helped Saudi Arabia with other strategic assistance, as well.

Sanders and a handful of other senators, including Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, have been working for more than a year to round up support for the resolution. Only 44 senators voted for it in March. But two weeks ago, more than 60 lawmakers voted to advance debate on the same bill.

Sanders and Murphy say two key moments contributed to the push's growing momentum: the Saudi bombing of a school bus filled with Yemeni children in August and what the CIA believes to be the Saudi government-sanctioned killing in October of Khashoggi.

"I think that exposed to the world what this regime is about," Sanders said of the Khashoggi killing before Thursday's vote. "And people began to ask, why are we allied with a Saudi war in Yemen which is killing children? Maybe it's time to rethink that."

A late November procedural vote on the resolution came hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stonewalled senators in a closed-door bipartisan briefing about the administration's response to the Khashoggi killing, which also likely contributed to the bipartisan support for the Yemen bill. "There is no direct reporting connecting [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi," Pompeo told reporters after that briefing.

"I don't think there's anybody in that room that doesn't believe he was responsible for it," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said minutes later. Corker voted to advance the Yemen resolution that day but said he would vote against the measure this week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said before Thursday that he opposed the measure, even though it was expected to pass with bipartisan support. "If the Senate wants to pick a constitutional fight with the executive branch over war powers, I would advise my colleagues to pick a better case," he said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Regardless of the resolution's future, its Senate passage marks a key turning point in the U.S.-Saudi relationships. In addition to the Yemen bill and the resolution condemning Saudi Arabia's role in the Khashoggi killing, a broad sanctions bill is expected in the coming months. And the Yemen resolution's sponsors have made it clear they'll try to pass the measure again next year, when Democrats control the House.

The U.S. has long overlooked Saudi Arabia's human rights record and viewed the country as a close trade, military and energy-production ally. After his inauguration, Trump made Saudi Arabia the first country he traveled to on a state visit.

But, in the Senate at least, the Khashoggi killing has put a substantial strain on the U.S.-Saudi relationship. "Just because you're our ally, you cannot kill with impunity and believe you can get away with it," Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said, promising to introduce a bipartisan sanctions bill early next year when the next Congress convenes.

Corker said the Yemen war and Khashoggi killing have likely set back the two countries' relationship for years to come. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a longtime booster of both Trump and Saudi Arabia, clearly agrees.

"I'm never going to let this go until things change," he said, calling Salman "so toxic, so tainted, and so flawed," despite the Trump administration's close embrace of Saudi Arabia's heir apparent.

"Enough is enough," Graham said. "So to our friends in Saudi Arabia, you're never going to have a relationship with the United States Senate unless things change, and it's up to you to figure out what that change should be."

Correction: 12/13/18

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi was killed in August. He was killed in October.

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The Senate is expected today to pass a resolution demanding the U.S. end its support for Saudi Arabia's ongoing war in Yemen. The bipartisan effort is being viewed as a rebuke to Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration even though the Republican-led House is not expected to follow suit. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said about the Senate debate that he spent years defending the Saudi regime, but now...


LINDSEY GRAHAM: Enough is enough. So to our friends in Saudi Arabia, you're never going to have a relationship with the United States Senate unless things change. And it's up to you to figure out what that change should be.

CORNISH: NPR's Scott Detrow joins us now from the Capitol. And Scott, first of all just remind us about U.S. activities in Yemen. What's been going on?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Yeah, this started under the Obama administration. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran had gotten involved in an ongoing civil war in Yemen, and it's become a proxy war of sorts. So for several years, the United States has supported Saudi efforts - refueling planes during airstrikes and providing intelligence and strategic support. And this has become a real humanitarian crisis.

So for more than a year, a handful of senators from both parties have pushed to use this congressional power to force the U.S. to end its support. This has been led by Republican Mike Lee of Utah, Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who I spoke to earlier today.

BERNIE SANDERS: What we're talking about is in the last three years alone as a result of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemen civil war, 85,000 children have already starved to death. Millions more face starvation.

DETROW: So they've been trying to get this vote for a while, but they've had a hard time getting there. And in fact, it came up for a vote earlier in the year in March, and it failed. Only 44 senators supported it.

CORNISH: What was the turning point then for senators who didn't support it then but do now?

DETROW: A couple of things happened. First of all, the war just got more brutal. The humanitarian crisis surrounding it deepened. And Chris Murphy says one big turning point was the Saudi bombing of a school bus of children this summer. But the biggest change was the killing of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi. The CIA believes this was done at the order of Saudi Arabia's crown prince. Sanders says that is what made the difference.

SANDERS: And I think that exposed to the world what this regime is about. And then people began to ask, why we are allied with a Saudi-led war in Yemen which is killing children? Maybe it's time to rethink that.

DETROW: So there was a real bipartisan anger in the Senate at not only that killing but at the Trump administration's slow response, the president's dismissal that Saudi Arabia played a role in it. And this really came to a head when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stonewalled the Senate in a bipartisan briefing that came just a few hours before a preliminary vote on this measure, which ended up passing by a wide margin.

CORNISH: So what happens next, especially if, as we mentioned, the House is not likely to take it up?

DETROW: So this is probably it for now. This session of Congress ends in just a couple of weeks, and the Republican leaders in the House have made it clear they're not going to bring this up for a vote. But Sanders and Murphy say they will push again next year when Democrats control the House of Representatives.

And this is being seen as a key turning point for the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship. The Trump administration has already said it's going to end those refueling missions, and this is going to be followed by a broader Senate resolution condemning Saudi Arabia. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is going to support that even though he's opposing today's resolution.

And there could also be a broad sanctions bill coming up either at the end of this month or early next year in the new Congress. Bob Corker is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he says the United States-Saudi Arabia relationship has likely been damaged for years to come because of all of this.

CORNISH: That's NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow. Scott, thank you.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.