The White House and Sen. Bernie Sanders clashed Tuesday in the run-up to a Senate vote on the war powers resolution, put forward by the Vermont independent, banning U.S. support for Saudi-led offensive operations in its war on Yemen. By the evening, Sanders had agreed to withdraw his resolution, saying on the Senate floor he would enter negotiations with the White House on compromise language.
“I’m not going to ask for a vote tonight,” Sanders concluded. “I look forward to working with the administration who is opposed to this resolution and see if we can come up with something that is strong and effective. If we do not, I will be back.”
If it had happened, the vote may have been close, as advocates believed they had five to eight Republicans lined up to vote yes. But getting back, as Sanders said, will be a challenge, as Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives in early January. A growing block of House Republicans have become resistant to U.S. military adventures overseas, but current House Republican leadership has been opposed to curtailing U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
On Tuesday morning, the White House privately circulated talking points making the case against the resolution, saying President Joe Biden’s aides would recommend a veto if it passed and that the administration was “strongly opposed” to it. The White House argued, in part, that a vote in favor is unnecessary because, significant hostilities have not yet resumed in Yemen despite a lapse in the ceasefire, and the vote would complicate diplomacy.
Sanders — leaving a rally in support of sick days for rail workers, at which he called on the White House to take executive action on their behalf — said that he was aware of the administration’s efforts. “I’m dealing with this as we speak,” he said in the early afternoon.
Questioned by the White House press corps, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre initially declined to comment on the administration’s posture toward the resolution, but when confronted with the confirmation by Sanders, she acknowledged the administration was pushing its preferred approach. “We’re in touch with members of Congress on this. Thanks to our diplomacy which remains ongoing and delicate, the violence over nine months has effectively stopped,” she said, adding that the administration was wary of upsetting that balance.
White House Press Secretary declines to comment on whether President Biden would veto Bernie Sanders’ Yemen war powers resolution following reporting by @ryangrim that the White House is urging Senators to vote against it: https://t.co/0yBrK4j42e pic.twitter.com/8WO1X65K0i— Ken Klippenstein (@kenklippenstein) December 13, 2022
Jamal Benomar, formerly U.N. under-secretary-general who served as special envoy for Yemen until 2015, was critical of the White House’s claim that it was engaged in diplomacy, much less that the war powers resolution would imperil that. “There’s been no diplomatic progress whatsoever,” he told The Intercept. “There’s been no political process, no negotiations, or even a prospect of them. So an all-out war can resume at any time.”
The administration’s opposition represents a reversal on the part of top Biden administration officials including Jake Sullivan, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Wendy Sherman, and Colin Kahl, who signed a letter in 2019 calling on Congress to override then-President Donald Trump’s veto of the Yemen war powers resolution. Warning that the legislation represented “a constitutional matter facing Congress that may be unparalleled in its impact on millions of lives,” the letter argued that the war powers resolution would go beyond just alleviating Yemeni suffering and addressed a core constitutional question of checks and balances that affects all Americans. “The executive branch would be emboldened to launch and sustain unconstitutional wars” without the legislation, the letter said.
Jean-Pierre’s reasoning — that a peace resolution would actually mean war — aligns with the talking points distributed by the White House, which were obtained by The Intercept.
“The Administration strongly opposes the Yemen War Powers Resolution on a number of grounds, but the bottom line is that this resolution is unnecessary and would greatly complicate the intense and ongoing diplomacy to truly bring an end to the conflict,” the talking points read. “In 2019, diplomacy was absent and the war was raging. That is not the case now. Thanks to our diplomacy which remains ongoing and delicate, the violence over nearly nine months has effectively stopped.”
A coalition of antiwar groups, in dueling counterpoints that were also circulated privately and obtained by The Intercept, argued that the question of timing and delicacy did not militate against the resolution:
A UN-brokered truce in Yemen expired more than two months ago. The Saudis can resume airstrikes at any time. A previously announced end to U.S. “offensive support” did not prevent devastating and indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, which occurred as late as March 2022. Passing this legislation allows Congress to play a constructive role in the negotiation of an extension of the truce and a long-term peace.
“There’s been a lull in the fighting, but since there was no concerted effort to move the political process forward, the lull is a temporary one and all sides are preparing for the worst,” Benomar, the former U.N. under-secretary-general said. He also warned that the situation is more volatile now than it was in the past and that subsequent fighting would likely be bloodier. “The situation is extremely fragile because Yemen has fragmented now and you have different areas of Yemen under the control of different warlords.”
Biden’s own Yemen envoy, Tim Lenderking, has warned that a failure to reach a new peace agreement would precipitate a “return to war.” While a U.N.-brokered six-month ceasefire was agreed to earlier this year, it ended on October 2. On Monday, the UNICEF warned that 2.2 million Yemeni children are malnourished, with over 11,000 children having been killed or maimed in the war.
The war began in 2015 under Saudi Arabia’s then-Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman — now crown prince and prime minister — pitting the richest country in the region against the poorest. MBS, as he’s known, told former CIA Director John Brennan that the military operation, initially codenamed Operation Decisive Storm, would “finish off the Houthis in a couple of months,” according to Brennan’s memoir. “I looked at him with a rather blank stare and wondered to myself what he had been smoking,” Brennan recalled.
The White House also argued that the resolution should be rejected because it goes further than one passed in 2019. “I know that many of you supported a similar war powers resolution in 2019,” the talking points read. “But the circumstances now are significantly different. And the text of the resolution itself is also different.”
The text of the resolution may be different, but the goal is the same, advocates of the resolution said:
This legislation reflects the latest developments in the conflict and its directives have been adopted by the House of Representatives for three years in a row. Its operative text was endorsed in 2019 by Jake Sullivan, Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Robert Malley, Wendy Sherman, and Colin Kahl. While midair refueling ended as a result of previous votes on war powers resolutions, offensive Saudi bombings in Yemen continued, including for more than a year after the Executive Branch announced an end to “offensive” support. S.J.Res.56 bans any U.S. logistical involvement in offensive Saudi-led coalition strikes in Yemen. Such involvement is operationally essential for the bombings. It differs from previous legislation only in that it is tailored to end future operational U.S. involvement in offensive Saudi airstrikes, ensuring that they cannot resume without affirmative authorization from Congress.
The White House talking points do not explain how withdrawing U.S. support for the Saudi-led war would upset the diplomatic balance, but the argument makes up the bulk of their case against the resolution, according to the talking point:
Here are the facts: The Yemen war was ongoing and escalating at the start of the Biden Administration through early this year. Hundreds were dying each month, the Yemeni people were experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe, and dozens of Houthi-launched missiles were flying at KSA.
That violence has effectively stopped for a period now going on nine months, in no small part due to the robust diplomatic efforts by the United States.
However, the situation is still fragile, and our diplomatic efforts are ongoing. The most intense diplomacy right now is directly between the Houthis and KSA, which is what we’ve always wanted — and they are making progress, but it’s far from done. A vote on this resolution risks undermining those efforts.
Some advocates say the White House’s opposition to the war powers resolution represents a gift to MBS, which could embolden him. “Despite the catastrophic failure of Biden’s fist bump approach with MBS and the Saudi government, it seems that while MBS gets more brutal and emboldened, the administration doubles down on protecting him,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, research director for Saudi Arabia and the UAE at Democracy in the Arab World Now, referring to Biden’s controversial meeting with MBS in Jeddah this summer. “Now, they protected him legally in U.S. courts with a legal immunity request, protected him militarily with weapons and arms sales, and protected him politically with pressure on Congress to impede efforts to end the Yemen war.”
Biden, who in his campaign vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, more recently said that “there will be consequences” after Riyadh cut oil production shortly before midterm elections — consequences which have yet to materialize.
The resolution scrambled the partisan spectrum, with major players on both the right and left teaming up against the war. Advocates of the resolution said that Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was prepared to vote yes, and Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Works, Concerned Veterans for America were pushing for a yes vote.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who serves as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the war, announced on Mehdi Hasan’s show Tuesday that he would be supporting the resolution, a major boost for supporters. (Late last year, Murphy supported a missile sale to Saudi Arabia to “defend” against the Houthis.)
Murphy specifically cited the resolution’s restrictions on U.S. maintenance of the Saudi bomber fleet, saying it was appropriate that this resolution goes beyond the previous one. “I just think it’s time,” he told Hasan. “The Saudis have not shown a level of seriousness in ending this war despite the misery that has been visited upon Yemenis.”
.@ChrisMurphyCT says he’ll be voting in favor of Bernie Sanders’ Yemen war powers resolution: “The Saudis have not shown a level of seriousness about ending this war...and the United States needs to just clear out.”— The Mehdi Hasan Show (@MehdiHasanShow) December 13, 2022
Catch his full convo w/ @mehdirhasan on @MSNBConPeacock. pic.twitter.com/yW2dNoRu1W
California Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla said during the day that he would be a no vote, and staffers for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., indicated she would also vote no. She had been a yes in past years, though her Senate operation is known to be largely staff-driven at this point, which may change the calculus.
Finally, some administration allies made the argument that the resolution’s definition of hostilities could set some type of precedent that could hamper support for Ukraine in its war against Russia’s invasion, though the resolution is clear that it is limited to Yemen and only applies to offensive operations.
“The whole thing is just embarrassing for the Democrats,” said Dan Caldwell, vice president for foreign policy for the conservative group Stand Together, backed by the Koch organization, and a senior adviser to Concerned Veterans for America. “Even though this started under Obama, they were able to claim moral high ground on this issue during Trump. They just surrendered it again. The logical end of the Biden administration argument is that you need to starve Yemeni children to support Ukraine.”
The coalition of groups backing the resolution said they expect Sanders to introduce the same language in the beginning of January, engage the administration in negotiations, but move forward alone if the White House continues in opposition.