WASHINGTON — The Senate cast a historic vote Thursday afternoon to end U.S. participation in a Saudi-led war effort in Yemen , delivering a clear political rebuke of President Donald Trump’s continued embrace of the kingdom, and setting the stage for more strategic challenges to Saudi policy when Congress regroups next year.
The 57-to-38 vote is the first time that the Senate has voted to invoke the War Powers Resolution — in this case, to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, which elected officials and human rights groups blame for fomenting the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
“Today, we tell the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia that we will not be part of their military adventurism,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who co-sponsored the resolution with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
The Senate also voted unanimously to condemn Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as responsible for killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Thursday’s War Powers action is largely symbolic because the resolution is dead on arrival in the House, where lawmakers blocked such a measure from being voted on this year. Lawmakers there remain bitterly divided along party lines about whether to challenge Trump’s support for the kingdom, even in the face of evidence implicating its crown prince in the killing of Khashoggi.
House lawmakers emerged from a closed-door briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis earlier Thursday, urging very different responses to Saudi Arabia and Salman, whom a recent CIA assessment found was probably responsible for the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“They have to be held responsible,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said after the briefing, referring to Mohammed and Saudi King Salman.
On Yemen, Engel added that while the Saudis were right to worry about the growing influence of Houthi rebels aligned with Iran, “we cannot use it as an excuse to just say ‘whatever the Saudi government is doing is OK because we’re fighting for the greater cause.’ “
But there remain Republicans in the House who defend the crown prince — and those who think that even if he should be called out for his involvement in Khashoggi’s death, the punishment should stop there.
“We recognize killing journalists is absolutely evil and despicable, but to completely realign our interests in the Middle East as a result of this, when for instance the Russians kill journalists … Turkey imprisons journalists?” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said. “It’s not a sinless world out there.”
That stands in sharp contrast to the Senate, where several Republicans have been encouraging a broad response to Saudi Arabia over not just Khashoggi’s killing and the Yemen war but the kingdom’s blockade in Qatar, its recent detainment of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a slate of human rights abuses they say have compromised the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
Trump has refused to condemn Mohammed for killing Khashoggi, a Saudi national, on Oct. 2. Pompeo has echoed Trump’s stance in public interviews and behind closed doors lawmakers said.
“All we heard today was more disgraceful ducking and dodging by the secretary,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, who supports bringing up a War Powers resolution in the House to cut off U.S. support for the Saudis’ Yemen war effort. On Wednesday, the House narrowly voted to block rank-and-file members from demanding a floor vote on any such Yemen resolution, after leaders slipped in a rule change to do so into an unrelated agricultural bill.
On Wednesday, House leaders also met with CIA Director Gina Haspel to be briefed about the details of Khashoggi’s slaying. But they emerged offering few details about the briefing — or about what step House Democrats would take, once they assume the majority in January, to pursue more punitive measures against Saudi Arabia, beyond holding hearings.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are making plans to capitalize on the Yemen resolution vote with further measures next year – including sanctions on Mohammed and the other Saudis implicated in Khashoggi’s killing, and an order to halt all nondefensive weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia until hostilities in Yemen cease.
“The current relationship with Saudi Arabia is not working for America,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday in comments to reporters about what next steps senators planned to take to address Saudi policy. “I’m never going to let this go until things change in Saudi Arabia.”