Democrats are set to challenge President Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia in one of their first major foreign policy moves since retaking the House.
Congressional fury over the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and the Saudi government’s role in the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi receded into the background during the recent 35-day partial government shutdown, but it is now positioned to be front-and-center again in the coming weeks.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday advanced a resolution that would require Trump to withdraw all U.S. forces supporting the Saudi-led military campaign in neighboring Yemen’s civil war, with an eye toward a House floor vote before the end of the month.
Senators, meanwhile, will soon be able to force a vote on their companion resolution.
Supporters are confident the measure can pass both chambers, daring Trump to issue the first veto of his presidency.
“Today the House Foreign Affairs Committee took us one step closer to passing the first war powers resolution out of both chambers in the history of the United States Congress,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the resolution’s chief House sponsor, said in a statement. “More than 14 million Yemenis—half the country—are on the brink of famine, and at least 85,000 children have already died from hunger and disease as a result of the war. Let’s end American complicity in the atrocities in Yemen.”
A handful of lawmakers have been trying for years to curtail U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where the forces are fighting
Houthi rebels supported by Iran. The United States provides the Saudis with logistics, intelligence and arms sales for the war.
But those legislative efforts, from progressive Democrats and some noninterventionist Republicans, were considered fringe until lawmaker anger at Saudi Arabia reached a fever pitch after Khashoggi’s death in October.
Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident living in the United States who wrote for The Washington Post, was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The Trump administration levied sanctions on some Saudi officials over his murder, but lawmakers demanded a stronger response.
Amid the furor, the Senate voted 56-41 to approve a resolution last year to withdraw U.S. forces in or “affecting” Yemen except troops fighting al Qaeda and associated forces.
The House, controlled by Republicans at the time, blocked any Yemen war powers resolutions from coming to the floor for a vote.
The White House threatened to veto the Senate resolution, saying the “fundamental premise” of the measure was “flawed.”
Backers of the war powers resolution were given more fuel this week after CNN reported that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bought the support of al Qaeda-linked fighters, hard-line Salafi militias and others in the civil war by giving them U.S. weapons.
Some of the weapons have also made their way into the hands of Houthis, according to CNN, potentially giving Iran an opportunity to study U.S. weaponry.
Amnesty International reported Tuesday that the Emirates are “recklessly” providing Yemeni militias with U.S. and European arms.
The Trump administration and U.S. military officials acknowledge the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, but argue that cutting off U.S. support for the Saudis would eliminate leverage to improve their behavior.
“Certainly it’s a very significant humanitarian disaster in Yemen, but I do believe that departing from our partners there removes the leverage that we have to continue to influence them which we have,” Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said this week.
The administration also continues to defend its response to the Khashoggi killing, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling Fox Business Network on Wednesday that “we will continue to hold all of the people connected to it accountable.”
Pompeo also pushed back on a question about Khashoggi getting lured to the consulate in Turkey by the Saudis, saying, “You should be careful about the facts that are out there. Not all of them reflect the American understanding of what took place.”
But after Khashoggi’s death, the recent CNN report and four years of civil war in Yemen, Democrats say they are determined to send a message to Trump and Riyadh that Saudi behavior needs to change.
The Foreign Affairs Committee took a step in that direction Wednesday by approving in a party-line 25-17 vote the resolution directing the president to withdraw U.S. forces in or affecting hostilities.
At a hearing ahead of the vote, committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said “it can no longer be business as usual” when it comes to the Saudis.
“Our country’s strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, despite some bumps in the road, has been a valuable one,” he said. “Saudi Arabia plays an important role as a counterbalance to Iran in the region. But neither the threats facing the Saudis nor America’s partnership with the kingdom mean that the Saudis should have a blank check.”
Engel also stressed that the hearing and resolution will be the “beginning” of his panel’s engagement on the issue.
“We will not sweep these questions under the rug,” he said. “And we will push for changes that are absolutely necessary to get the U.S.-Saudi relationship back on track.”
Khanna’s office has previously said it expects the resolution to come to the House floor in February.
In the Senate, the resolution’s backers can force a vote as soon as 10 days after the measure is introduced. The 10-day mark comes next week, but Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Tuesday that timing on when to force the vote is still being worked out between chief Senate sponsor Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the House sponsors.
Democrats have lost two seats since the resolution passed the upper chamber in December. But supporters say the margin from that vote, when seven Republicans voted with Democrats, was wide enough to ensure it passes a second time.
Murphy also raised the possibility of more support now given the revelations in the CNN report, though he acknowledged he has “not converted any Republicans since we introduced it.”
“I think there were a number of Republicans who wanted to support in December, but didn’t because they thought the Saudis were going to start behaving less badly,” Murphy added. “There’s no indication that the Saudis are behaving less badly, and thus I think there were some Republicans who were on the fence in December who may be with us now.”