Senate

Senate sides with Trump on providing Saudi military support

Greg Nash

The Senate on Tuesday rejected an effort to force President Trump to end the U.S. military’s support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing operations in Yemen. 

Senators voted 55-44 to table the resolution, effectively killing it.

The resolution, spearheaded by Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), would require Trump to withdraw any troops in “or affecting” Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al Qaeda. 

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Senate Republicans who voted against tabling the measure included Lee, Susan Collins (Maine), Steve Daines (Mont.), Jerry Moran (Kansas) and Rand Paul (Ky.).

Democrats Christopher Coons (Del.), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Doug Jones (Ala.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jack Reed (R.I.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) voted with the majority to table the measure.

The vote marks a victory for the administration, which lobbied hard against the resolution.

Defense Secretary James Mattis urged Republicans to oppose the resolution during a closed-door lunch just hours ahead of the vote. And administration officials briefed all senators late last week to tout the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

“New restrictions on this limited U.S. military support could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism and reduce our influence with the Saudis,” Mattis wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week.

The United States has provided support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen’s years-long civil war, including military advisers helping Saudi forces target enemies in Yemen for attack and U.S. planes refueling Saudi-led bombers on combat missions.

But senators have signaled growing concerns about the level of civilian casualties. The United Nations estimates that 10,000 people have been killed.

“This war in Yemen has killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians, human beings, lest we forget. Each one of them possessing innate, immeasurable worth and dignity. This was has created refugees, orphans, widows,” Lee said.

Supporters of the resolution argue that too much power on foreign policy has been ceded to the executive branch and Congress needs to sign off on military action in Yemen. The Sanders-Murphy-Lee resolution would require congressional approval for future operations.

“It is Congress that has the power to declare war. The founding fathers gave the power to authorize military conflicts to Congress … not the president,” Sanders said. “For far too long, Congress under Democratic and Republican administrations has abdicated its constitutional role in authorizing war.” 

But supporters faced an uphill battle in the Senate where other efforts to place restrictions on the U.S.’s support for Saudi Arabia’s military action have fallen short. For example, last year, a resolution to block part of Trump’s $110 billion arms sale narrowly failed.

Murphy acknowledged that votes on the Democratic side remained “fluid” with members weighing whether or not to set a “new precedent.”

Menendez noted the Foreign Relations Committee, where he is the top Democrat, “has the jurisdiction over the questions of the use of force.”

“As we consider this resolution, we must fully grasp the situation on the ground and the scope of the attacks on one of our traditional security partners. Saudi Arabia has endured Yemeni-originated attacks inside its territory on a scale that no American would accept,” he said. 

GOP leadership publicly lined up against the resolution ahead of Tuesday’s vote. 

“Withdrawing U.S. support would increase, not decrease, the risk of civilian casualties. And it would signal that we are not serious about containing Iran or its proxies,” McConnell said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) added that the resolution should go back through the committee process, calling the move to bring it straight to the floor “very unusual.”

“Not all of us are as up to speed on the details of this or what the unintended impact might be as the Foreign Relations Committee that’s set up for the purpose of examining legislation,” he said.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) noted that he and other lawmakers met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday and “strongly pushed back on what is happening right now in Yemen and asked them to take strong corrective actions.”

He added the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on Yemen in coming weeks, as well as markup a war authorization bill next month.

“We plan to have a Yemen hearing in the next few weeks to deal with this issue, but also to take up appropriate legislation. That is the way that we typically deal with issues of such importance,” he said.

He added that the way the forthcoming authorization for the use of military force bill is being constructed “when we go into new countries, when we take on new groups, the Senate would have the ability to weigh in on those issues.” 

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) separately introduced legislation that would require the State Department to certify that Saudi Arabia is working in “good faith” to try to negotiate an end to Yemen’s civil war and alleviate the humanitarian crisis.  

If the secretary of State couldn’t make that certification, then steep restrictions would be placed on using U.S. funds to refuel Saudi-coalition aircraft.

Young added on Tuesday that the Lee-Murphy-Sanders resolution is the “wrong approach.” 

“[The] resolution sidesteps the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, doesn’t lead to the short of fulsome debate,” he said. “The legislation is never going to become law. It will never become law. It’s an exercise in messaging.”

The Senate vote came just hours after Trump met with bin Salman, who is visiting Washington for the first time since becoming next in line to the throne.

Trump, during the meeting, called Saudi Arabia a “very great friend and a big purchaser of equipment and lots of other things.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Bill Nelson Bob Corker Bob Menendez Catherine Cortez Masto Chris Murphy Christopher Coons Donald Trump Heidi Heitkamp Jack Reed James Mattis Jeanne Shaheen Jerry Moran Joe Donnelly Joe Manchin John Cornyn Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Saudi Arabia Senate Sheldon Whitehouse Steve Daines Susan Collins Todd Young Trump administration Yemen

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