Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., have introduced SJRes54, invoking the War Powers Resolution to force a Senate floor vote on ending unauthorized U.S. participation in the Saudi war in Yemen. A floor vote on the resolution is expected next week. Co-sponsors currently include Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Cory Booker, D-N.J.
The Sanders-Lee Yemen war powers resolution will get a vote. While this tool has never been used to force a Senate vote on war powers, it has been used to force Senate votes on arms sales. In September 2016 and June 2017, these provisions of law were used to force Senate votes on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The resolution could pass the Senate, because the margin of the June 2017 vote was narrow. Forty-seven Senators – 43 Democrats and four Republicans – voted against continuing to arm Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. If the same 47 vote against Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen again – and the war and humanitarian catastrophe have only gotten worse since June – then four more Senators voting against Saudi Arabia’s war would make 51.
In June, five Democratic Senators voted to keep arming Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Mark Warner of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Bill Nelson of Florida. Doug Jones of Alabama wasn’t in the Senate yet. If the 47 vote as they did in June, and if four of these six Democrats vote against the war, then the resolution will pass, even if no more Republicans voted for it than the four Republicans who voted against the war in June. Groups pushing for a yes vote on the Democratic side include MoveOn, CREDO, Avaaz and Indivisible.
In addition, groups on the right who were not active on the June vote are supporting the Sanders-Lee resolution, including FreedomWorks, In Defense of Christians and Breitbart. So there may be more than four Republicans who vote for the Sanders-Lee bill.
If the Sanders-Lee resolution passes, it is likely that the Trump administration will comply with the Senate’s demand. Presidents have backed down when faced with broad Congressional pushback on war powers. In August 2013, President Barack Obama threatened to bomb Syria without Congressional authorization. Two hundred Republican and Democratic House Members signed a letter to Obama saying that under the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution, you can’t do this without our prior authorization.
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Obama backed down and agreed to seek Congressional authorization. When he could not obtain it, he sought a diplomatic solution. Later, Obama adviser Ben Rhodes acknowledged that Obama had not acted without Congressional authorization, in part, because of the threat of impeachment.
President Donald Trump himself already called in December for Saudi Arabia to completely end its blockade of goods into Yemen; two days later, the White House called for the immediate cessation of hostilities in Yemen. It would be difficult for the Trump administration to explain why U.S. participation in the Saudi war must continue when the Senate has just declared such participation unconstitutional and insisted that it stop, even as the administration itself has said hostilities should cease, even as the war has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with millions of people on the brink of famine, even as U.S. taxpayers are paying for humanitarian assistance to ameliorate the near-famine that Saudi Arabia is deliberately creating in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia will not continue the war without U.S. military support. Foreign Policy reported that the Saudi-United Arab Emirates “daily bombing campaign would not be possible without the constant presence of U.S. Air Force tanker planes refueling coalition jets.” Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and CIA veteran, said: “if the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman, ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”
But if Trump does not comply with the Senate’s demand, the matter will return to the House. HConRes81 was introduced in September by Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Walter Jones, R-N.C. It currently has 50 co-sponsors. At that time, the House leadership was able to block floor action. But in the wake a resolution passing in the Senate, the political dynamics in the House would be completely different. Pressure for the House to take up the Senate resolution would be intense, and House members like Khanna can invoke the War Powers Resolution to try to force a vote.
If the Sanders-Lee resolution can pass the Senate, companion legislation can pass the House. Already in June 2016, the last time the House was allowed to vote on any aspect of this war, 40 House Republicans joined 164 House Democrats to nearly block the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.
It is hard to imagine that Trump would risk impeachment to keep the Saudi war in Yemen going. Does Trump really care that much about preserving the conflict?