In a historic expression of Congressional war powers, the U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a resolution that seeks to end American military support for the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen.
The vote marks the first time the Senate has ever invoked the War Powers Act – a bill passed in the wake of the Vietnam war designed to limit the president’s military authority – to end American participation in a war.
Senators voted 56-41 in favor of the resolution, which was introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders and co-sponsored by Republican Senator Mike Lee.
Before becoming law, however, the resolution must be passed by the House and signed by President Donal Trump, which is unlikely to happen before the current Congressional session ends on December 21.
Nonetheless, Thursday’s vote was a major rebuke of the Trump administration’s foreign policy as a majority of Senators defied Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had urged them to vote against the bill.
The Senate also unanimously passed a separate resolution on Thursday holding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
‘Apocalyptic’ Humanitarian Crisis
According to the U.N., Yemen is facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
A recent study estimates that at least 85,000 children have died of extreme starvation as a result of the war and experts warn that millions more are at risk of suffering the same fate if fighting continues.
“The violence will have to stop. Unless it does, this country will become a country of living ghosts,” Abeer Etefa, the Senior Spokeswoman for the United Nations World Food Program, told The Globe Post in November.
U.N. Officials have described the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country as “looking like the apocalypse.”
Yemen – one of the world’s poorest countries – has been engulfed in war since Houthi rebels, backed to a limited extent by Iran, seized the country’s capital Sanaa in 2015.
The U.S. has played a key role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition, which intervened in the conflict in an effort to oust the Houthis from power and restore the country’s previous government.
HISTORIC VICTORY: The Senate has voted to stop U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. This is the first time ever that the Senate has voted to end an unauthorized war. https://t.co/8SLVTA5m2d
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) December 13, 2018
The U.S. Role
The U.S. has supplied billions of dollars in high-tech weaponry that Saudi Arabia has used in the conflict and U.S. personnel have worked closely with the Saudis to assist in training, intelligence sharing, and targeting.
Until last month, American warplanes also provided aerial refueling to coalition bombers, allowing them to stay in the air for longer and strike more targets.
The coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen has been condemned by the U.N. for indiscriminately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, resulting in possible war crimes.
In addition to facing mass-starvation, the Yemeni people have been subject to a massive cholera outbreak resulting from the coalition bombing of water treatment facilities.
Citing high levels of civilian casualties, former President Barack Obama suspended the transfer of weapons to Saudi Arabia just before leaving office, but the decision was quickly reversed by Trump.
The Saudi coalition has also blockaded the country with the stated purpose of preventing the Houthis from obtaining weapons, but the blockade has made it difficult for humanitarian organizations to bring food and aid.
Humanitarian organizations have condemned the blockade, saying Saudi Arabia is using hunger as a weapon against the Yemeni people.
Following Thursday’s vote, Sanders celebrated what he said was a “historic” victory and said the resolution sends a signal to Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman that the U.S. will no longer overlook human rights issues to protect the alliance between the two countries.
“Today, the [U.S.] Senate said in a very loud way that we will not continue to have our military posture dictated by a despotic, murderous regime,” he said.
Once in a while, with persistent prodding and shaming, the U.S. Senate rises to the moment.
Final vote on the Lee/Sanders/Murphy resolution to pull America out of the immoral, disastrous Yemen war: 56-41.
A historic day.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) December 13, 2018
Republican Senator Rand Paul said the vote was an “extraordinary moment,” and applauded his colleagues for exercising thier constitutional power.
“Saudi Arabia has been committing atrocities against civilians in Yemen, and we should have NOTHING to do with it,” he tweeted.
Sanders’ resolution was initially introduced in February and defeated in a 55-44 vote in March.
But the Senator told CBS earlier in December that there was renewed support for the legislation after the assassination of Khashoggi put a political spotlight on the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia.
The passage of Sanders’ resolution comes a day after the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognized government agreed to ceasefire around the port city of Hodeidah after negotiations in Sweden.
What if any impact that Thursday’s Senate vote will have on the situation on the ground in Yemen remains to be seen.
The resolution will now move to the House, though it’s unclear if there will be a vote on it before the end of the year.
On Wednesday, House Republican leaders for the second time this year deprivileged a similar resolution introduced by Representative Ro Khanna, preventing a vote.
“Our colleagues in the House are fighting an effort against the Speaker there, Paul Ryan, to try to get this legislation dealt with,” Sanders said Thursday morning. “Whether or not we can do that in this session, I don’t know.”
After November’s midterm elections, Democrats have regained control of the House, and Sanders said he expects the issue will be taken up then if no vote is allowed this year.
There could also be significant legal questions over the term “hostilities” if the resolution ultimately becomes law.
The resolution directs the executive branch to remove “United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen.”
Defense Secretary Mattis has previously argued U.S. assistance to Saudi-coalition does not constitute “hostilities.”
An amendment that was included in the final text of the resolution introduced by Republican Senator Todd Young defines “hostilities” to include refueling aircraft, but does not define the term more broadly.