Democratic Opposition to the Yemen War Gains Momentum Ahead of Key Senate Vote

The Senate will vote on a resolution to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war. A number of Democrats who previously opposed the measure have come around.

Yemenis carry the body of a detainee following an alleged Saudi-led airstrike targeting a Houthi-held detention center in Sanaa, Yemen 13 December 2017. Photo by: Hani Al-Ansi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Yemenis carry the body of a detainee after an alleged Saudi-led airstrike targeting a Houthi-held detention center in Sanaa, Yemen, on Dec. 13, 2017. Photo: Hani Al-Ansi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Opponents of the war in Yemen have picked up momentum heading into a critical Senate vote on Wednesday on whether to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee has said that he would support the measure. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, also on the Foreign Relations Committee, has told colleagues that he supports the effort as well, Democratic aides told The Intercept.

Both senators voted to table the effort — which was introduced by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy — the last time it arrived on the Senate floor in March. Menendez is one of the more hawkish Democrats in the chamber, and his support for the resolution is a sign that the party is coalescing around opposition to the war.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began their intervention in Yemen in March 2015, launching a bombing campaign aimed at restoring Yemen’s former president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to power. For more than three years, the campaign has contributed to an exploding humanitarian crisis that has left millions at risk of famine.

In a procedural vote, the Senate voted 55-44 against a similar measure in March, with 10 Democrats voting against it. But five Republicans voted in favor at the time. If those GOP senators vote the same way on Wednesday, just four of the remaining eight Democratic holdouts would have to vote in favor for the measure to pass. The renewed push to end the war comes after Saudi agents murdered Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in October, triggering global outrage and making support for Saudi Arabia toxic on Capitol Hill.

Four Democratic aides told The Intercept that in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing, many of the Democrats who voted against the measure in March are likely to flip. In addition to Menendez and Coons, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, and others are considering a vote in support of the measure. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday that he was undecided and would wait until after a Trump administration briefing Wednesday morning to decide how he would vote.

It is unclear how Rhode Island Democrats Sen. Jack Reed and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse will vote. Both voted against it in the spring but have faced continued pressure from activists in their home state to support the measure. Their offices did not return requests for comment.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who voted in favor of the resolution in March, signaled his support for the measure on Twitter last week.

The Trump administration, which has stood by Saudi Arabia in the weeks following the Khashoggi killing, is making a last-ditch lobbying effort to try and stop the resolution. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will brief the Senate at 11 a.m. Wednesday, according to two people familiar with the matter. According to The Guardian, the White House prevented CIA Director Gina Haspel from being present. Her absence would be noteworthy, since she traveled to Turkey, where Khashoggi was killed, to learn about his murder and would be in a position to share details with the senators in the classified briefing.

The resolution would still need to pass the House of Representatives, which is unlikely while it remains in the control of Republicans. Last week, Republican leadership defanged a similar resolution — stripping it of its “privileged” status and making it less likely to receive a vote on the floor — by sneaking language into a measure about wolves that passed 201-187.

Once Democrats take back the House in January, it is likely that a similar measure could pass. At that point, it would need to go back through the newly constituted Senate again. But with enough GOP support, or perhaps as Saudi Arabia’s reputation continues to erode, passage could again be possible with enough Democratic votes.

The legislation requires President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. forces from “hostilities” in Yemen. The Department of Defense, for its part, has disputed whether the U.S. role — limited to providing weapons, intelligence, and logistical support — amounts to participation in “hostilities.” If the measure passed both chambers of Congress, it would set the stage for a confrontation in which Trump could decide whether to veto the legislation.

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