The Senate voted 63-37 Wednesday to advance a resolution to stop supporting the Saudi-led coalition in its bombing of Yemen. The United States currently supports the coalition with arms, intelligence, and air support.
The measure, which invokes the War Powers Resolution, was the first major test to see if the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was enough to disrupt the close U.S.-Saudi relationship. It now heads to the Senate floor for debate.
The vote came just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis delivered a classified briefing before the Senate on Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the extent of the Saudi government’s involvement in the killing of Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, who was a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month. The journalist was later found to have been killed, and the CIA concluded with high confidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) ordered Khashoggi’s murder. The White House reportedly blocked the CIA from presenting its findings before the Senate on Wednesday, upsetting many senators.
During their opening remarks at the briefing Wednesday, released by the State Department and Pentagon, both Mattis and Pompeo urged senators to vote against the resolution.
“The suffering in Yemen grieves me, but if the United States of America was not involved in Yemen, it would be a hell of a lot worse,” Pompeo said, embracing Saudi talking points that U.S. involvement in Yemen conflict is necessary to counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
“We are seldom free to work with unblemished partners,” Mattis said in his remarks. “Long-standing relationships guide but do not blind us. Saudi Arabia, due to geography and the Iranian threat, is fundamental to maintaining regional and Israeli security, and to our interest in Mid-East stability.”
A similar vote in the Senate failed in March, shortly after MBS visited the White House. That bill, which failed by a vote of 55-44, also invoked the War Powers Resolution and called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces in Yemen not fighting al Qaeda. Ten Democratic senators voted against that bill.But many of the senators who voted to table that resolution in March voted in support of Wednesday’s resolution, like Chris Coons (D-DE), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Bob Corker (R-TN). Sen. Corker said he may vote against the bill if the administration takes further action on Saudi Arabia, according to Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), a vocal critic of the Saudi government.
The bill is unlikely to pass the House of Representatives. Earlier this month, House Republicans added a rule change to a completely unrelated bill (about wolves) stating that the War Powers Resolution’s expedited procedures do not apply to Yemen. Thus, Republicans can avoid debating this until January, when the new freshman class is in office. The White House has not scheduled a similar briefing with Pompeo and Mattis for the House of Representatives.
The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, and the United States has supported the coalition since then with weapons, aircraft refueling, and intelligence. The coalition has bombed funerals, weddings, and hospitals. U.S.-made weapons have been used for many of these attacks, including one in August on a school bus full of children, killing 40 kids from 6 to 11 years old and injuring dozens more.
Yemen is facing the worst cholera outbreak in the world, and last month, the World Health Organization predicted that about 10,000 cases are reported a week. The media often cites a figure of 10,000 civilians having been killed in the war in Yemen, but that number is very likely a gross underestimate.
President Donald Trump has downplayed the CIA’s assessments of Khashoggi’s murder and instead stressed the importance of Saudi oil and U.S. arms sales to the overall economy. He has also repeatedly inflated the figure of Saudi spending on U.S. military equipment as justification for that decision.