The Senate on Thursday approved legislation to end the U.S. military’s support of the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen, dealing a blow to the White House and a longtime strategic ally in the Middle East.
Senators voted 56 to 41 to approve a resolution to stop support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of the gruesome murder of a journalist, a souring alliance with the country and a civil war that is pushing Yemen to the brink of famine.
The Senate also approved a resolution condemning the country’s crown prince.
Supporters said the Yemen resolution delivers the upper chamber’s firmest rebuke of Saudi Arabia in the history of its relationship with the United States and marks the first time that the Senate has voted to end what they called an unauthorized war. The resolution also escalates pressure on President Donald Trump’s administration.
“We brought Republicans and Democrats together in a very historical moment,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a sponsor of the resolution, said after the final vote. “The Senate this afternoon stated that we will not continue participation in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which has resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis on earth. …We will not continue to have our military posture dictated by a despotic, murderous regime in Saudi Arabia, a regime which does not respect democracy, does not respect human rights.”
The Senate vote comes more than two weeks after it approved a procedural measure to allow Thursday’s move, increasing pressure on the White House to reverse its direction in Yemen as well as push for a peaceful resolution in the country’s ongoing civil war.
More than 10 million people are battling starvation because of the war, which has already claimed the lives of an estimated 85,000 children.
“With this vote, Saudi Arabia just lost the support of Congress for their disastrous war in Yemen. A bipartisan majority spoke with one voice that the status quo is over and we will no longer accept the war crimes being committed in our name,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., another sponsor of the resolution. “The momentum is on one side, and it’s only growing. Congress has woken up to the reality that the Saudi-led coalition is using U.S. military support to kill thousands of civilians, bomb hospitals, block humanitarian aid and arm radical militias. The Saudis are important partners, but they need to realize that our partnership is not a blank check for them to fund extremists and murder civilians.”
Sanders and Murphy, along with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced Joint Resolution 54 in March, forcing a vote for the first time on the matter, though in the midst of broader support of the operation. As a result, the resolution was effectively rejected in a 55 to 44 vote, largely along party lines with Republicans voting against it.
But since that time, support for Saudi Arabia has diminished, especially in light of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death and other concerns.
U.S. forces have provided support for Saudi Arabia and the Yemen government in their fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, which some lawmakers contend the U.S. military has not been given proper authority to do. The U.S. forces have assisted in coordinating, refueling and providing target guidance and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
The Senate debated the resolution for several hours over two days, and it is slated for consideration before the House of Representatives next year. Its fate in the lower chamber remains unclear, along with the impact of a provision in an earlier farm bill approved by Congress that attempts to thwart the Yemen resolution.
Earlier this month, senators met behind closed doors on Capitol Hill with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who urged the lawmakers to thwart efforts to move forward with the resolution.
That was followed by a meeting of a smaller group of senators who met with CIA Director Gina Haspel in a classified briefing on the Khashoggi’s murder, enraging several members who said Saudi Arabia must be called to account for his death.
Khashoggi was brutally killed during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Turkey, followed by an apparent cover up led by the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Trump’s comments about Khashoggi’s death have also fueled concerns, since he dismissed U.S. intelligence reports confirming the Saudi crown prince directed the killing. Pompeo and Mattis have also aligned with Trump’s view of the U.S. intelligence findings.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been a staunch defender of Saudi Arabia in the past, said the crown prince, also known as “MBS,” has been a “wrecking ball” and must go.
“I just want everybody in the region to know that if you’re thinking about doing what MBS did and you want to have a relationship with the United States, good luck, it’s not going to happen,” Graham said Wednesday. “I’m never going to let this go until things change in Saudi Arabia, and this is coming from the biggest supporter of the relationship in the past. …Enough is enough.”
Last week, Graham led a bipartisan group of senators in sponsoring a resolution declaring the crown prince complicit in Khashoggi’s death. On Thursday, the Senate also approved by voice vote Senate Joint Resolution 69, a war powers measure sponsored by outgoing Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., that condemns the crown prince’s role in the death.
“The United States Senate has said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Corker said from the floor. “That is a strong statement, I think it speaks to the values we hold dear.”
On Wednesday, Graham, Murphy and Sens. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said the resolutions condemning the crown prince begin the next steps in the Senate’s rebuke of Saudi Arabia.
For example, arm sales to Saudi Arabia could be halted in the future, Menendez said.
“Just because you’re our ally, you cannot kill with impunity and believe you can get away with it,” he said.
Earlier this month, Mattis and Pompeo told senators in a private meeting that the United States was at a critical juncture in the Yemen confrontation and couldn’t afford to withdraw right now.
“Pulling back our limited U.S. military support, our weapons sales to our partners, and our protection of the Saudi and Emirati populations would be misguided on the eve of the promising initial negotiations,” Mattis said at the time. “It took us too long to get here, but at this key juncture, a change in our approach would work against” United Nations efforts.
Pompeo raised concerns the resolution would encourage the Houthis and Iranians tied to the war in Yemen and undermine peace talks that began last week in Sweden.
Mattis and Pompeo called for a ceasefire on Oct. 30, with the goal of causing all sides to take a step back from the fighting.
After several days of peace talks between the Yemen government and the Houthis, both sides have reached several agreements, including a cease-fire in the key port city of Hudaydah. The talks also signaled that the negotiations could see another round of discussions next month.
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