Updated at 5:45 p.m. ET
The U.S. Senate is poised to deliver a historic rebuke to both Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration Wednesday night, passing a resolution demanding an end to U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war in Yemen.
The resolution draws on congressional authority spelled out in the 1973 War Powers Act – authority that, until now, Congress has never actually used.
The effort to stop American involvement in Yemen is still a long way from a done deal. The House would have to pass the resolution by years’ end and President Trump would have to sign it — two steps that likely will not happen. Still, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., calls the vote “a profound message.”
“It says to the country, it says to the world, the United States Senate — hopefully in good numbers today — says we will not be part of this brutal, horrific war in Yemen led by an undemocratic, despotic regime,” Sanders told NPR. “That’s a profound statement that will reverberate all over the world.”
The years-long conflict, viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has spiraled into a growing humanitarian disaster. The U.S. military has provided refueling for Saudi aircraft carrying out strikes — assistance the Trump administration ended amid growing criticism — and helped Saudi Arabia with other strategic assistance, as well.
Sanders and a handful of other senators, including Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, have been working for more than a year to round up support for the resolution. Only 44 senators voted for it in March. But two weeks ago, more than 60 lawmakers voted to advance debate the same bill. Roughly the same amount of senators are expected to support the resolution tonight, sending it to the House.
Sanders and Murphy say two key moments contributed to the push’s growing momentum: Saudi bombing of a school bus filled with Yemeni children in August, and what the C.I.A. believes to be the Saudi government-sanctioned killing in August of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi.
“I think that exposed to the world what this regime is about,” Sanders said of the Khashoggi killing. “And people began to ask, why are we allied with a Saudi war in Yemen which is killing children? Maybe it’s time to rethink that.”
The late-November procedural vote came hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stonewalled senators in a closed-door bipartisan briefing about the administration’s response to the Khashoggi killing, which also likely contributed to the bipartisan support for the Yemen bill. “There is no direct reporting connecting [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi,” Pompeo told reporters after the briefing.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in that room that doesn’t believe he was responsible for it,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said minutes later. Corker voted to advance the Yemen resolution that day, but says he’ll vote against the measure this evening.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., opposes the measure, even though it’s expected to pass with bipartisan support. “If the Senate wants to pick a constitutional fight with the executive branch over war powers, I would advise my colleagues to pick a better case,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Regardless of the resolution’s future, its Senate passage marks a key turning point in U.S.- Saudi relationships. The Senate will likely pass a second resolution condemning Saudi Arabia’s role in the Khashoggi killing later this week, and a broad sanctions bill is expected in the coming months. And the Yemen resolution’s sponsors have made it clear they’ll try to pass the measure again next year, when Democrats control the House.
The U.S. has long overlooked Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and viewed the country as a close trade, military, and energy-production ally. President Trump made Saudi Arabia the first country he traveled to on a state visit.
But, in the Senate at least, the Khashoggi killing has put a substantial strain on that relationship. “Just because you’re our ally you cannot kill with impunity and believe you can get away with it,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), said, promising to introduce a bipartisan sanctions bill early next year when the next Congress convenes.
Corker said the Yemen war and Khashoggi killing have likely set back the two countries’ relationships for years to come. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a longtime booster of both Trump and Saudi Arabia, clearly agrees.
“I’m never going to let this go until things change,” he said, calling Salman “so toxic, so tainted, and so flawed,” despite the Trump administration’s close embrace of Saudi Arabia’s heir apparent.
“Enough is enough,” Graham said. “So to our friends in Saudi Arabia, you’re never going to have a relationship with the United States Senate unless things change, and it’s up to you to figure out what that change should be.”