House Votes to Halt Aid for Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen

 nytimes.com  02/13/2019 21:28:08   Catie Edmondson and Charlie Savage
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Injured Yemeni fighters in Durayhimi last year. The nearly four-year conflict in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians and inflicted a devastating famine.CreditCreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The House voted on Wednesday to end American military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a defiant and rare move to curtail presidential war powers that underscored anger with President Trump’s unflagging support for Saudi Arabia even after the killing of a Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.

The 248-to-177 vote, condemning a nearly four-year conflict in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians and inflicted a devastating famine, will pressure the Republican-controlled Senate to respond. Eighteen Republicans voted with the Democtatic majority. Congress’s upper chamber in December passed a parallel resolution, 56 to 41, in a striking rebuke to the president and his administration’s defense of the kingdom. But that measure died with the last Congress after the House Republican leadership blocked a vote.

Dozens of Democrats, however, softened the blow when they defected to a Republican amendment to allow intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia to continue when “appropriate in the national security interest of the United States.”

Senate passage of the Yemen resolution could prompt Mr. Trump to issue the first veto of his presidency, and it would come after Republicans have registered their unhappiness over other foreign policy issues, such as the president’s plan to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan and his threats to pull the United States from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced new sanctions on Moscow that would require the secretary of state to submit a determination of “whether the Russian Federation meets the criteria for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Democrats demanded Senate action.

“This is their opportunity to send a message to the Saudis that their behavior on Khashoggi and their flagrant disregard of human rights is not consistent with the American way of doing business and not in line with American values,” Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in an interview, adding that he was “relieved” that Congress finally took action on the resolution, which he first introduced in 2017.

The House resolution is a rare use of the 1973 War Powers Act, which gave Congress the ability to compel the removal of military forces absent a formal declaration of war. Those powers, created in the wake of the Vietnam War, have almost never been used, as lawmakers have demurred from intervening in politically sensitive matters of war, peace and support for the troops.

But the conflict in Yemen is proving to be different. Senators sponsoring their own resolution are expected to act quickly to force a vote, as lawmakers in both parties fume over how the administration has responded to Saudi Arabia’s role in the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, who was based in Virginia. Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and one of the sponsors, said he anticipated a vote “within the next 30 days.”

The White House pre-emptively threatened to block the resolution over the weekend, with administration officials arguing in a statement of administration policy that “the premise of the joint resolution is flawed” because the United States has provided only “limited support to member countries of the Saudi-led coalition” in Yemen.

Senate aides involved in the resolution say they are optimistic that it will pass, though it is unclear whether it will garner the same level of support among Republicans that it did in December. Some Republicans, mindful of an embarrassing veto showdown with Mr. Trump, are looking for other ways to show their dissatisfaction.

Members of Congress expressed fresh outrage last weekend after the White House declined on Friday to meet a legally mandated deadline to report whether the administration believed Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was personally responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s death, as the C.I.A. has concluded.

In a letter sent to Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised the administration’s “dedication to promoting accountability” in placing sanctions on 17 Saudis for their involvement in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, and pledged to continue to “impose tangible and significant consequences.” The day before, The New York Times reported that the crown prince told an aide in 2017 he would use “a bullet” on Mr. Khashoggi if he did not end his criticism of the government.

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Senators Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, and Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, drafted a similar resolution last year.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

The response drew widespread condemnation from members of Mr. Trump’s own party.

“Everyone involved in this gruesome crime must be identified and held accountable,” said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Committee on Foreign Affairs. “When the United States fails to lead, we compromise our integrity and abandon those pursuing justice around the world.”

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, told reporters on Tuesday that “the sooner the White House gets there the better,” adding: “I don’t know what’s taking so long. I think it’s pretty obvious the crown prince had to be involved in this.”

Mr. Trump did find a vote of confidence from Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has cooled what was once a hotbed of dissent over the Trump administration’s foreign policies. Mr. Risch broke from his colleagues to express satisfaction at the administration’s response, telling reporters on Tuesday that “the administration has been very forthcoming, the State Department has been very forthcoming.”

Indignation at the administration’s response to the killing led seven Senate Republicans to break with their party in December and back a Yemen resolution drafted by Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, and Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah.

This time around, with the Democrats controlling the House, some of those dissenters are seeking ways to hold the Saudi government accountable without invoking the War Powers Act. Mr. Menendez and Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, introduced legislation last week that would impose broader sanctions on the Saudi government, including a ban on American refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft in Yemen, without calling for a removal of military support.

Some senators frustrated with the administration’s response have refused to back the resolution, arguing that the invocation of the War Powers Resolution must be evaluated independently from their discontent with the White House.

“I think that’s separate — it has to be, from a point of pragmatism — from Mr. Khashoggi and his murder,” Mr. Rubio, who will not support the measure, said on Tuesday.

The House enacted the War Powers Resolution by overriding President Richard M. Nixon’s veto. The resolution grew out of frustration that Congress’s role in deciding when the country would go to war had eroded during the first decades of the Cold War, when presidents of both parties began dispatching troops into combat, including the Korean War, without lawmakers’ permission.

Among other things, the War Powers Resolution says presidents may unilaterally deploy troops into combat situations only if the United States has been attacked, and it created a mechanism for Congress to direct a deployment’s immediate termination. The House measure says that American military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition counts as a deployment into unauthorized hostilities under the War Powers Act and must end.

Unlike many recent disputes over presidential war powers — such as the legal basis for the Obama and Trump administrations’ war against the Islamic State — the current debate does not turn on how far the executive branch may stretch the 2001 and 2002 authorizations to use military force against Al Qaeda and Iraq. The Houthi rebel forces in Yemen have no connection to those two conflicts.

The Trump administration, however, has said that it can rely on congressional authority from other statutes, including one that permits the Pentagon to provide logistical assistance to allies, as a basis for its help to the Saudi-led coalition.

The White House also argues that the assistance the United States is providing — intelligence sharing for targeting purposes, logistics support and, until recently, aerial refueling — falls short of a deployment into the sort of hostilities that is covered by the War Powers Resolution.

The White House has suggested that it could be an unconstitutional encroachment on Mr. Trump’s powers as commander in chief for Congress to override his judgment and try to terminate the mission.

Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.

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