House panel approves language revoking 2001 war authority as Iran tensions spike
Congress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support
Supporters of a measure to cut off U.S. support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen are projecting victory in the coming weeks when the Senate takes up a House-passed resolution.
The Trump administration is expected to ramp up its lobbying against the Yemen war powers resolution as the vote nears in hopes of flipping some of the Republicans who back the measure.
But opponents have few tools at their disposal to stop the resolution, which only needs a simple majority for a procedural vote and subsequent final passage.
Backers say they now have added momentum as the administration's missteps in handling the Jamal Khashoggi killing have only increased ire at Saudi Arabia.
"I think we're going to win," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said.
He declined to say whether he expects any Republicans who supported the measure in December to switch their vote.
Sanders said he expects to force a vote on the resolution later this month or in early March, while co-sponsor Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he expects the vote shortly after lawmakers return from their weeklong Presidents Day recess.
"There's not a lot of reason to wait," Murphy said.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is the other major supporter of the measure.
The resolution would require President Trump to withdraw U.S. forces in or "affecting" Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al Qaeda or associated forces.
The Senate passed a similar resolution in December, in a 56-41 vote. That was when Republicans held a 51-49 majority. The Republican-controlled House at the time prevented the measure from coming to the floor for a vote.
But Democrats are now in control of the lower chamber, which voted 248-177 last week to approve the resolution, sending the measure over to the Senate.
Days before the House vote, the White House threatened to veto the resolution, arguing it is "flawed" because U.S. forces are not directly engaged in combat in Yemen's civil war and that an expansive definition of hostilities could harm other bilateral defense cooperation agreements.
If the measure makes it to the president's desk and he follows through on the White House veto threat, it would be the first piece of legislation he has vetoed since taking office.
The United States supports the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen's four-year-old civil war by providing logistics, intelligence sharing and arms sales. The U.S. military previously provided aerial refueling to coalition jets, but the Trump administration suspended that support in November.
Some lawmakers have tried for years to curtail U.S. contributions to the coalition, which has been blamed for thousands of civilian deaths in the war. Those lawmaker efforts consistently stalled until late last year, after the killing of Khashoggi, a U.S.-based journalist and Saudi dissident.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Lawmakers were furious at both Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration for its tepid response to the slaying.
When outraged lawmakers latched onto legislative efforts to stop U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen, the Trump administration dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis to Capitol Hill for a briefing. But the briefing backfired and lawmakers were unconvinced by the administration's arguments for staying involved in the war, leading to more support for the Yemen resolution.
Following the recent House vote, Pompeo expressed confidence the administration can sway lawmakers if officials "continue to inform" Congress of Iran's role in Yemen's civil war.
"On Yemen, I must say I'm surprised," Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News. "To the extent we prohibit things taking place in Yemen, we're only benefiting the Iranians. They're the ones that have caused all the strife. The humanitarian crisis is a direct responsibility of Iranian bad behavior. And I think as we continue to inform members on Capitol Hill of that fact, they'll come to see it the way that President Trump does."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who voted against the Yemen resolution in December, has not indicated he plans to take any action to prevent the resolution from passing this time around.
"This is going to go through the regular order, and we'll see how it does," Risch told The Hill last week.
Republicans now hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, two seats more than in December. But since seven Republicans sided with Democrats last year, backers say there is enough support for the measure to pass again.
Lawmakers have a fresh slight from the administration that is reinvigorating their ire over Khashoggi.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year invoked the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to require Trump to determine whether members of the Saudi royal family, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were responsible for killing Khashoggi and should in turn be sanctioned.
Pompeo replied 120 days later - the deadline for responding - with a letter, but lawmakers in both parties said the response did not meet the requirements of the Magnitsky law.
Murphy cited that response in predicting more support for the resolution this time around compared to the December vote.
"There's no reason for people to change their vote," Murphy said. "Saudi Arabia's behavior hasn't changed. Frankly, the lack of Magnitsky certification will flip votes from no to yes, so this is not heading away from us. This is heading toward a bigger vote."
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who was not in the Senate during the previous Yemen vote, indicated the administration's handling of the Magnitsky request will affect how he votes when the resolution comes to the floor.
"I will look for the report coming from the Magnistky Act in order to help inform my decision," he said.
Romney also issued a statement saying he was "concerned that the administration has yet to comply with the law, nor has it sufficiently explained why" and urged officials to "rectify this urgent situation and brief Congress on its progress as soon as possible."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), typically a Trump ally who has been among the most vocal critics of Riyadh since Khashoggi's death, was also dismayed by the Magnitsky response.
But he told The Hill on Thursday he won't vote for the war powers resolution, saying "never have, never will." Instead, he said he will continue to push separate legislation he introduced with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that would sanction Saudi officials, halt arms sales and prohibit aerial refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft.
"The MBS stuff, we just got to deal with," Graham said, referring to the Saudi crown prince by his initials. "We can't ignore this."