Defying Administration, Senate Votes to Advance Measure Ending US Support for Saudi War in Yemen

By Patrick Goodenough | November 29, 2018 | 2:57 PM EST

Yemenis inspect a building destroyed in airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Sana'a, Yemen June 06, 2018. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

( – Hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis urged U.S. senators not to move ahead with what Pompeo called a “poorly timed” resolution to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the Senate voted 63-37 to advance the measure.

As a result, the Senate moves a step closer to debating and eventually voting on a draft resolution introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on ending American involvement in the war, which the U.N. says has cost at least 10,000 lives – many of them are civilians killed in coalition airstrikes – and sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The scale of Wednesday’s vote reflected not just concerns about the war and looming famine in Yemen, but was also seen as a response to President Trump’s decision to limit punishment of Saudi Arabia over the killing of the self-exiled Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.

The kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is regarded as the architect of the Saudi-led campaign against the Shi’ite Houthi militia in Yemen. He is also suspected by many to be linked to the death of Khashoggi’s death, which occurred in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul early last month. Pompeo said Wednesday he has seen no intelligence linking the crown prince to the murder.

Wednesday’s vote was solely on the question of discharging the legislation out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It will be followed next week by another vote on proceeding to the bill. A series of amendments will then be considered before a vote on the final product.

Significantly, the vote saw 19 senators swing from a position of opposing debate on the resolution to one of supporting it.

Eight months ago the Senate voted not to advance the Sanders’ resolution, by a margin of 55-44.

At the time, only five Republicans – Sens. Susan Collins (Me.), Steve Daines (Mont.), Mike Lee (Utah), Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) – supported moving ahead with debate on Sanders’ measure.

This time, those five were joined by nine more Republicans – Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Bill Cassidy (La.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio), Pat Toomey (Penn.) and Todd Young (Ind.)

The other ten votes that moved from opposing debate on Sanders’ resolution to supporting it came from Democratic Sens. Chris Coons (Dela.), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Doug Jones (Ala.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jack Reed (R.I.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.)

Balancing US interests and US values

Earlier, Pompeo and Mattis briefed senators on the situation in Yemen and the U.S.-Saudi relationship, including the fallout from the Khashoggi murder, and urged the Senate to reject the resolution under consideration.

Pompeo told reporters afterwards that the measure would “encourage” the Houthis and their Iranian sponsors, and would undermine U.S.-led efforts to secure a ceasefire to end the bitter conflict in Yemen. Peace talks are planned in Sweden next month.

Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who is retiring at the end of the year – told the Senate he had been disappointed by the briefing, and expressed hope that the administration would take steps to rectify the balance “between our American interests and our American values,” when it comes to the relationship with Riyadh.

The Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes against the Houthis in March 2015, in support of the internationally-recognized Yemeni government.

The Obama administration provided “logistical and intelligence support” to the coalition, a policy continued by the Trump administration, as part of a broader effort to keep Iran in check. (Iran has supplied missiles which the Houthis have fired at targets inside Saudi Arabia, including an international airport.)

Early this month the Pentagon suspended U.S. air-to-air refueling of Saudi planes involved in the Yemen campaign, but said its military assistance to and training of the Saudis would continue.

Sanders’ resolution would direct the president to remove U.S. forces “from hostilities in or affecting Yemen, except those engaged in operations directed at Al Qaeda” within 30 days of passage, unless Congress approves a presidential request for a delay or unless a declaration of war or authorization of military force has been enacted.

A YouGov poll thjis week found that 75 percent of American respondents who expressed an opinion (89 percent of liberals and 54 percent of conservatives) were opposed to arms sales to be used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

The poll was commissioned by the International Rescue Committee, a U.S.-based relief group advocating for an end to the war.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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