WASHINGTON — Defying a White House veto threat, the Senate voted 54-46 on Wednesday to end U.S. support for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
The passage of the measure, which was co-sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, marks the first time lawmakers have invoked the decades-old War Powers Resolution to halt American military involvement in a foreign conflict.
It’s also another strong rebuke of President Donald Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia, which has been a point of tension with Congress since the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year. Lawmakers from both parties have called for a reappraisal of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and accused Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of being involved in Khashoggi’s murder, even as Trump has stood by the the Saudi leader.
Hours ahead of the vote, the White House statement threatening a veto, arguing that U.S. support for the Saudis does not constitute engaging in “hostilities” and that the resolution could undermine the fight against violent extremism. The Yemen resolution “seeks to override the President’s determination as Commander in Chief,” the statement said, and “would harm bilateral relationships in the region.”
“By defining ‘hostilities’ to include defense cooperation such as aerial refueling,” the statement said, the Yemen resolution could “establish bad precedent for future legislation.”
In a Senate floor speech ahead of the vote, Sanders said that Congress is reclaiming its constitutional war powers to end America’s complicity in a humanitarian crisis.
“We have been providing the bombs that the Saudi-led coalition is using, we have been refueling their planes before they drop those bombs, and we have been assisting with intelligence,” Sanders said. “In too many cases our weapons are being used to kill civilians. In August it was an American-made bomb that obliterated a school bus full of young boys, killing dozens and wounding many more.”
A similar resolution to end support for the Yemen war passed the Senate in December, but it was not taken up under the then-Republican-controlled House. For the resolution to reach the president’s desk, it will have to go back to the House for approval.
Approaching its fifth year, the war in Yemen has killed thousands of people and left thousands more on the brink of starvation, creating what the United Nations called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In a Senate floor speech ahead of the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urged his colleagues to oppose the resolution, which he said would limit U.S. leverage to end the conflict and to pressure Saudi pilots avoid civilian casualties. He noted that the administration has already ended air-to-air refueling of coalition aircraft.
The resolution would alienate allies, McConnell said, as the U.S. faces “real threats from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. We need cooperation from Yemen, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to defeat these terrorists.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., defended U.S. involvement, describing it as “intelligence support that helps construct no-strike lists that enable humanitarian efforts and protect humanitarian aid workers,” and “not the tip of the spear.” That support, he said, also assists partner nations to defend against “Iranian-supported ballistic missiles attacks.”
“If a UAV or missile hit a population center because of this resolution, it would be unforgivable,” he said.
The Senate voted 52-48 to kill Inhofe’s amendment to provide an exception for efforts to defend against ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and UAV threats to civilian population centers in coalition countries, including locations where citizens and nationals of the United States reside.
The vote on the resolution appears to be one of several fault lines to emerge in recent weeks between Republicans and the president over national security. Some Senate Republicans this week plan to vote again Trump’s emergency declaration; congressional Republicans pressured Trump to back off from a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria last month; and the House passed a resolution in January to bar a U.S. exit from NATO.
The conservative Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano dismissed that as a “narrative,” calling Wednesday’s vote “a bit of a one-off” that was “intimately tied to the response to Jamal Khashoggi.”
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.