WASHINGTON — A bipartisan quartet of House lawmakers is wrangling with the chamber’s leadership for a floor vote to withdraw U.S. military support for Saudi involvement in Yemen’s civil war.
California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who is pressing for the vote, said Tuesday that he is in negotiations with Democratic and Republican leadership about whether the resolution is privileged under the War Powers Act and would therefore get an automatic, fast-tracked floor vote.
Such a vote, Khanna said, is likely to unite progressive Democrats and non-interventionist Republicans — though the outcome is unclear. “You may get many Democrats and Freedom Caucus members,” Khanna said, referring to the conservative wing of the House GOP caucus.
The push comes amid a wave of efforts in Congress for the legislative branch to reassert its war powers since President Donald Trump was elected — even as the White House has rejected calls for an updated Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF. Those calls have grown louder since the recent deaths of four American troops in Niger.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will host Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Monday for a hearing on the AUMFs used to cover current conflicts, which passed Congress in 2001 and 2002.
On Yemen, Khanna and Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.; Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Walter Jones, R-N.C., introduced a resolution to require U.S. forces halt aerial refueling and targeting intelligence against Houthi rebels, purportedly backed by Iran. It would take effect within 30 days of its passage.
Ongoing negotiations are for a more broadly written resolution, Khanna said.
Jones, a longtime non-interventionist, pointed to Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks to explain his support. He lamented Trump’s supportive visit to Riyadh this summer, the mega arms deal signed there and what he sees as outsized Saudi influence in Washington.
“They killed 3,000 Americans. Why in the world are we always cutting deals with people who don’t seem to care about Americans?” Jones said. “For me, personally, I see the Saudis in the same boat with the Iranians.”
For his part, Khanna argues U.S. involvement is “overreach” and risks complicity in a mushrooming humanitarian crisis. According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has bombed civilian targets in Yemen; and the war has left several hundred thousand suffering from cholera and 7 million at risk of famine.
“I don’t want to be complicit with Saudi, which lacks regard for human life. When America has the highest standard for these things, we should never be cooperating with Saudi Arabia,” Khanna said. “It compromises America’s moral standards, and we’re being blamed for their atrocious actions.”
The arguments against the resolution are that U.S. assistance to Riyadh is necessary to help check Tehran and that that assistance is not substantial enough to meet the War Powers Act. That would mean the resolution isn’t privileged, which would make it vulnerable for scuttling.
“The statute does not just apply to ground troops overseas,” Khanna said. “It says any U.S. government coordination or participation with a foreign government in an overseas conflict triggers the need to go to Congress.”
Khanna and Jones both acknowledged the headwinds they face from Saudi-funded lobbyists. The Washington Post reported that some of Washington’s premier law and lobby firms — including Podesta Group, BGR Government Affairs, DLA Piper and Pillsbury Winthrop — have been retained by the Saudi government.
At least one senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Brad Sherman, was not convinced the War Powers Act would be triggered by U.S. intelligence sharing or refueling — or that it was wise to withdraw support for the Saudi campaign.
“I see problems with what the Saudis are doing, but I see huge problems with the Houthi as well,” said Sherman, of California. “I’m not ready to say it’s wrong to help Saudi Arabia, as long as the country makes that decision in a constitutional manner.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said Tuesday he had yet to take a look at the resolution.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.