WASHINGTON — U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen survived a critical vote in the Senate on Thursday as Democrats failed to override President Donald Trump’s veto, shifting the fight to the nascent defense policy and appropriations bills.
The vote was 53-45, short of the two-thirds majority that would have been required.
“This is the first time in 45 years the War Powers Act was used successfully to try to stop U.S. intervention in an unauthorized war,” Sanders, a co-sponsor of the legislation and one of many Democratic presidential candidates, said during the vote. “No one should think this is the end of that process. This is the beginning of that process. What you’re seeing now is Congress finally having the courage to reassert its constitutional [war-making] responsibility.”
The dispute over whether the U.S. should continue military support for the Emirati and Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed rebels in Yemen may next be fought in the drafting of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act or defense-spending legislation. Both are considered must-pass pieces of legislation, which, if they reach the president’s desk with Yemen language he opposes, would test his resolve.
Though the legislation has yet to be drafted, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., the sponsor of the Yemen resolution in the House, said he would be seek language akin to the War Powers Resolution in the annual defense policy bill.
“The NDAA will be the next big step, and it will keep the pressure on the Saudis,” said Khanna. Khanna is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, which drafts and negotiates the bill with its Senate counterpart.
One of the Senate measure’s co-sponsors and an appropriator, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he likewise expects a bid to defund U.S. military assistance in Yemen in the 2020 defense spending bill.
Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a senior appropriator, was favorable. “The measure passed here on a very strong bipartisan basis, and that could generate the appropriate support in the appropriations bill or NDAA,” he said, acknowledging such a move would invite partisan resistance.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and SASC Personnel Subcommittee Chariman Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., were among Republicans opposed to such a strategy, as it might impede the progress of the bills.
“That, to me, is more of a stunt,” Tillis said. “The NDAA is more about Department of Defense authorities, readiness, capabilities. This is more of a policy discussion that falls outside of that. I can see this as a tactic, but I don’t think it’s appropriate, and that’s why I don’t think it would prevail.”
In April, Congress sent Trump a bipartisan, never-before-used War Powers Resolution that sought to invoke Congress’ constitutional authorities, but Trump used the second veto of his presidency to strike it down. Since the administration of President Barack Obama, U.S. military support included intelligence sharing, logistics and, until late last year, aerial refueling.
Many of the Democratic candidates for president are now opposed to U.S. military support in the Yemen war.
Former Vice President Joe Biden of the Obama administration aligned himself this week with the Senate Democratic Caucus — which includes presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Michael Bennett Kirsten Gillibran, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar. In the House, candidates Tulsi Gabbard, Eric Swallwell and Seth Moulton voted for the measure to remove the military from the Yemen war, while Tim Ryan did not vote.
Lawmakers have grown concerned about the thousands of civilians killed in coalition airstrikes since the conflict began in 2014, and they have criticized the president for not condemning Saudi Arabia for the alleged killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi who lived in the U.S. and had written critically about the kingdom.
In the floor debate ahead of the vote, Democrats said that invoking the 1973 War Powers Act was an important step in Congress reclaiming its long-atrophied war-making authorities, while Republicans argued the law was being misapplied and would, if successful, empower Iran.
“We do indeed have important security and military partnerships with the countries comprising the coalition,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “but these partnerships are not a blank check for weapons and direct support for a campaign that is decidedly working against U.S. interests in the region.”
Seven Republicans broke ranks to vote with Democrats on Thursday in attempting to overturn Trump’s veto, but they represented too small of a minority, as most GOP lawmakers stood with the president.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that halting U.S. training, intelligence sharing and other noncombat support would weaken U.S. influence and pressure on allies to find a diplomatic end to the war.
“I share many of my colleagues’ serious concerns about aspects of Saudi Arabia’s behavior, but the best way for us to encourage better behavior from our partners is to remain involved with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and not push them into the arms of Russia and China,” McConnell said.
Trump, with the second veto of his presidency, argued not only that the Yemen measure’s passage would weaken efforts to fight al-Qaida and Islamic State affiliates but also that Congress was overstepping its authority and impinging on the president’s constitutional powers as commander in chief.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.