WASHINGTON — House Republicans voted Tuesday to scuttle a war powers resolution to end U.S. military involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, but the matter will likely get a vote under Democrats next year — with likeminded measures already percolating in the Senate.
Hours before the House voted 201-187 to shut down debate on the resolution led by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Rep. Adam Smith — who is the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and likely its chairman under Democratic control in January — said the matter would get a new look next year.
“As the Yemeni people face the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, the urgency and need for Congressional attention could not be greater,” Smith, D-Wash., said in a statement. “A Democratic majority in the new Congress must reassert close oversight regarding Yemen.”
The action comes amid growing congressional anger against Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally and the country where President Donald Trump made his first visit abroad after taking office. Frustration is mounting with the civilian death toll from a bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and as the U.N. warns the country is spiraling toward famine.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also has attracted the ire of U.S. lawmakers in the wake of the Oct. 2 killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and a critic of the crown prince, inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkey says Khashoggi was strangled and dismembered at the consulate by a 15-member assassination squad, including agents close to the prince.
Members of Congress have been calling for the administration to curtail arms sales to Saudi Arabia or take other action. And with the election handing control of the U.S. House to the Democrats, it becomes more likely that some retaliation against Saudi Arabia would gain traction on Capitol Hill.
Amid the furor on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the Saudi kingdom announced late Friday that the U.S. will stop refueling Saudi Arabian aircraft fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen — a decision anti-war groups have hailed as a victory — but several lawmakers called for the administration to go further.
The U.S. also provides the Saudi-led coalition with logistics support, intelligence and billions of dollars in arms sales.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., are teeing up their own resolutions to check the Trump administration on Yemen, they told reporters separately on Wednesday.
A debate and vote are scheduled for Thursday in the Senate on Paul’s resolution of disapproval of a $300 million sale of rocket launchers to Bahrain, a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war.
In September, the U.S. State Department announced the potential sale of 120 Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System M31 Unitary Rocket Pods and 110 Army Tactical Missiles System M57 T2K Unitary missiles — along with associated training and contractor support. Lockheed Martin’s Missile and Fire Control division in Grand Prairie, Texas, was named the prime contractor.
Though Paul has called the weapons “offensive,” the government announcement said they would be used to secure Bahrain’s oil and natural gas infrastructure, strengthen homeland defense, and deter regional threats.
On Wednesday, Paul told Defense News he was seeking a “proxy vote” that would send Manama “a strong message that they need to discontinue their bombing campaign on Yemen.”
“I would like to force a vote on whether we should be at war in Yemen; I can’t force that vote, but I can force a proxy vote on the war,” said Paul, who’s led other similar efforts in recent months.
The Arms Export Control Act of 1976 provides the special procedures whereby a senator can force a vote on an arms sale, though they are rare.
As for Sanders, he is targeting a vote after the Thanksgiving recess for his resolution with Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn. The Senate plans to return Nov. 26 and then adjourn on Dec. 14.
Their resolution would invoke the War Powers Act of 1973, which provides procedures for Congress and the president to participate in decisions to send U.S. armed forces into hostilities.
“I think its going to win, and I think there is increased frustration with the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia and the murder of a dissident journalist — and the horror and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” Sanders said. “I think added together, we’re going to win this.”
Two hawkish Republicans, Sens. Jim Inhofe and Lindsey Graham, said separately on Wednesday they oppose the Sanders-Lee-Murphy bill.
“I would oppose any resolution that would dictate to our president, where we’re going to take over his constitutional responsibilities,” said Inhofe, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman.
Graham argued U.S. intelligence cooperation and supplying of equipment does not fall under the War Powers Act.
“Foreign military sales, that’s not ‘hostilities,’ ” said Graham, an SASC member. “You’d be turning the law upside down and it’d be a tremendous power grab by the Congress. And it would neuter our ability to provide assistance to allies.”
Graham said he’s teaming with a Democratic senator on an alternative way to punish Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s death.
On Tuesday, the GOP-led House Rules Committee passed a rule that stripped the privileged status from Khanna’s resolution, which makes it unlikely the measure will resurface until the next Congress, when Democrats lead the House.
“Let’s be very clear: This is unprecedented in American history. Never has the speaker of the House and the majority denied a member of Congress a vote on matters of war and peace,” Khanna, a House Armed Services Committee member, said on the House floor ahead of Wednesday’s vote.
“What the majority is saying is that if the president of the United States and the speaker believe we should be in war, we should be at war, it doesn’t matter what members of Congress think,” Khanna said.
But Republicans argued the action was unnecessary after the announcement refueling would stop and that Democrats could call the matter to a vote when they lead the House next year.
“In a few short weeks, your party will assume the majority. You will have the opportunity to hold the hearings, the markups, to take the votes [on Yemen],” Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., a Rules Committee member, said Wednesday on the House floor. “But forcing this type of vote on members in the remainder of this Congress, in my view, is unnecessary at this time.”
The House voted mostly along party lines to pass the rule, which also dealt with a bill about management of the grey wolf population. Within the 201-187 vote, Republicans voted with 172 Democrats to try to sink the rule, but they were outnumbered by 195 Republicans and six Democrats. There were 25 Republicans and 17 Democrats who did not vote.
Among Khanna’s co-sponsors were Smith; House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.; and House Rules Committee ranking member Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
“Once it’s de-privileged, it’s in the hands of the majority, but soon that will change,” Smith told Politico on Tuesday. “We’ll keep up the argument now and take another run at it in the new year.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.