The Senate opened debate Wednesday on a bill to restrict US military involvement in Saudi-led war in Yemen, a dramatic move reflecting deep bipartisan anger over the Trump administration’s handling of relations with Saudi Arabia.
But House Republicans, with just weeks left in their majority, took the unusual steps of gutting the measure to deny it from getting a vote in their chamber, effectively preventing President Donald Trump from having to veto the resolution this year.
The measure, which has broad bipartisan support, reflects the deep frustration by many senators that the war has caused a massive humanitarian crisis that they feel must be stopped.
“Yemen is now experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, standing on the Senate floor next to a large picture of an emaciated young Yemeni girl. “With some 14 million facing starvation in one of the poorest countries on Earth as a result of this terrible war.”
Many senators also considered the bill a rebuke of Saudi Arabia – whose Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman they believe ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and Trump for not holding the prince accountable.
“This administration has made abundantly and disappointingly clear that it will not act unless we force it to,” said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “President Trump has made clear over and over again the only way he takes the high road is if he is dragged kicking and screaming. The Saudi government sees no incentive to change.”
Menendez is working with Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana and others on a separate measure that would put sanctions on bin Salman and others responsible for Khashoggi’s death and restrict arm sales to the US ally. They plan to push for a vote next year when the new Congress convenes while acknowledging that a dispute with Sen. Bob Corker over how to structure sanctions in the bill makes it nearly impossible to take up this year.
Corker, the retiring Republican from Tennessee who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, is working on a third measure related to Khashoggi that he hopes will get a vote this week or next. It would state flatly that “Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” according to the senator. It’s not clear if the House would take up bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged the Senate not to vote for the Yemen War Powers resolution. He argued the US is not “dropping ordinance” in Yemen and isn’t even refueling Saudi war planes anymore. He says War Powers is the wrong legislative vehicle and it would be a mistake to pick a constitutional fight with the President when the US isn’t actually fighting the war.
Instead, he encouraged senators to vote for the Corker resolution, which he said, “does a good job capturing bipartisan concerns about both the war in Yemen, and the behavior of our Saudi partners.”
Earlier, House Republicans quietly moved to give GOP leadership more power to block the Senate resolution, giving cover to the White House in its fight against the plan
The GOP-led House Rules Committee, in an unusual step in its final days in power, discreetly tucked a provision into an unrelated measure that would no longer consider the Yemen plan a “privileged” resolution during this Congress. If the measure is no longer considered privileged, it would no longer move on an expedited path and GOP leaders would have more power to deny the measure from getting a vote.
The language was added to a rule governing floor debate over the farm bill and was approved Wednesday by an extremely narrow margin, 206-203.
Rep. Jim McGovern, the Democrat who will chair the panel when Democrats take over the House in January, strongly objected to the GOP move.
“It was bad enough that Republicans for the first time ever used a legislative maneuver to shut off the privilege of a Yemen resolution last month,” McGovern said. “Now, they’ve taken the further unprecedented step of shutting off the privilege for all Yemen resolutions to prevent any debate on this through the end of this Congress.”
McGovern added: “Members of the House are being told to sit idly by for weeks as the worst conflict on the planet rages on. It’s a shameful abdication of our responsibility.”
But GOP leaders strongly defended their efforts to weaken the House-version of the resolution, which is being led by Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California.
Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, the outgoing chairman of the House Rules Committee, said the Yemen resolution is not necessary and would have little impact on ongoing operations in Yemen.
“When Democrats assume the majority in the coming weeks, they will have the opportunity to hold hearings, markups and take votes on this matter,” said Laura Peavey, a Sessions spokeswoman. “Forcing this type of vote on members in the remainder of this Congress is purely political and simply unnecessary.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s spokeswoman AshLee Strong said: “The U.S. is no longer providing the very support that this bill seeks to cut off thus making it unnecessary. It is based on a factually faulty premise.”
But Khanna accused Ryan of “using his remaining power to protect the Saudis who are aligned with al-Qaeda and murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
Virginia Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine blasted Ryan for blocking the Senate measure.
“Jamal Khashoggi was a Virginia resident and his kids are US citizens living in my state. We should not be enablers of this horrific murder of a journalist. We are going to stand up against it,” Kaine said. “If Paul Ryan thinks on the way out the door is last public service to humanity is covering up for Saudi Arabia, great. He can make that his legacy but we’re going to be around next year and will figure out ways so there are consequences for this.”
This story has been updated to include additional developments.