Senate fissure opens up over ending Yemen war

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Article Summary
Traditional centrists are pushing back against bipartisan efforts to stop US support for the Saudi coalition.

Tea Party conservatives and progressive liberals are ready to shake up America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Establishment centrists? Not so much.

Lawmakers have introduced dueling Senate resolutions regarding US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, spotlighting a cross-party split ahead of next week’s White House visit by the war’s architect, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Earlier this month, left-wing presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joined forces with Tea Party champion Mike Lee, R-Utah, on a resolution to force the Donald Trump administration to end US support for the war without exception. The move comes amid increasing US concern about the rising death toll and damage to civilian infrastructure in the 3-year-old intervention against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

In response, Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Todd Young, R-Ind., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., introduced a resolution last week that seeks to condition, but not end, US support for the war. Their resolution would require the secretary of state to certify that the Saudis are pursuing both “an urgent and good faith effort to conduct diplomatic negotiations to end the civil war in Yemen” and “appropriate measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by increasing access for all Yemenis to food, fuel and medicine” in order for US aerial refueling to continue.

“The humanitarian devastation caused by the conflict in Yemen is heartbreaking and Congress needs to take action,” Shaheen said in a statement. “I have partnered with Senator Todd Young to find an effective means to save innocent lives.”

Anti-war activists contend that the new resolution is simply a tactic to continue the war while taking oxygen away from the Sanders/Lee push. The United States provides Saudi warplanes with targeting assistance and midair refueling support, which is vital to operations against the Houthis.

"Young and Shaheen are conspiring with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to try to sabotage our vote,” said Robert Naiman, the policy director for Just Foreign Policy, one of the activist groups advocating for the exemption-free Sanders bill.

Naiman call the new bill a “green light for the status quo” that “would allow the war to continue indefinitely.”

Critics of the war were elated when Sanders, a high-profile liberal, brought increased domestic attention to the issue. Since then, several other potential 2020 contenders have signed onto the his bill, including Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Any senator can bring the Sanders resolution to the Senate floor for a vote starting today because it was introduced pursuant to the War Powers Act, a law intended to expedite congressional oversight of US military activity abroad. Al-Monitor has learned that while both the Sanders and Young resolutions may soon come to the Senate floor, a vote on either resolution is unlikely to happen before Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford briefs lawmakers on Yemen behind closed doors Wednesday.

The Sanders bill directs Trump to “remove United States armed forces from hostilities” in Yemen within 30 days of becoming law. The Department of Defense has criticized its legal justification and sent a letter to every Senate office last month rebutting the notion that midair refueling qualifies as US involvement in “hostilities.”

Naiman and others contend that the Young bill is essentially toothless because of the leeway it gives the Trump administration.

“Trump and Mohammed bin Salman are bosom buddies,” he said. “Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s employee, will make the Young-Shaheen certification faster than you can say Saudi oil money, even if the Saudis don’t change one single thing about what they’re doing.”

And even if Tillerson doesn’t play ball, the Young resolution contains exemptions that would allow US support for the Saudi coalition to continue for “Iranian terrorist activities” and “countering the transport, assembly or employment of Iranian ballistic missiles or components in Yemen.” The United Nations has concluded that Tehran has provided small arms to the Houthi rebels while allowing them to obtain Iranian ballistic missile technology.

Just Foreign Policy joined fellow activist groups Peace Action and Code Pink to lobby the offices of Young and Shaheen against the bill today. While the activist coalition initially feared that Senate leadership intended to amend the Sanders bill and replace it with the Young resolution on the floor, Shaheen issued a statement today noting that she expects both resolutions to receive a vote.

However, the activists point out that the Republican leadership under McConnell is in charge of the floor schedule. The activists fault Shaheen for joining an effort that they say could siphon away votes from the Sanders resolution, while arguing that Young's past advocacy for humanitarian aid in Yemen would be tainted by this bill.

The first-term senator has been a fierce opponent of the Saudi blockade on humanitarian aid to Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition’s obstruction of US-funded cranes to offload goods in Hodeidah, Yemen’s largest port. The Saudis finally allowed the replacement cranes to be delivered in January after the coalition destroyed the original ones in a 2015 bombing raid.

Young “has got the reputation of being concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and a good reputation with the aid groups,” said Naiman. “That reputation is about to be destroyed if he doesn’t back away from sabotaging this.”

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Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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