Democrats move to defund Yemen war after veto defeat

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Article Summary
After failing to override a presidential veto on ending US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Congress is looking for new ways to tie the Trump administration’s hands.

Congressional Democrats are looking to the power of the purse to end US participation in the war in Yemen after President Donald Trump successfully blocked their efforts to make it illegal.

The Senate voted 53-45 today to override the president’s veto of their War Powers resolution to end US support of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis, short of the two-thirds majority needed. But supporters of the measure are already planning their next line of attack, including efforts to defund US military engagement through riders in must-pass defense and spending bills.

“I’m not going to let the defense appropriations bill go without a vote on funding for the military campaign,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., an original cosponsor of the Yemen resolution who sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who authored the War Powers bill in the lower chamber, has also vowed to pursue the same approach in the Democratic-held House.

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“I will not give up this fight,” Khanna said in a statement after Trump vetoed the bill last month. He vowed to “continue to work with my colleagues in Congress, stakeholders and the peace groups to cut off all US participation in this war” through the annual defense spending and authorization bills.

Khanna sits on the House Armed Services Committee, which drafts the yearly defense authorization bill. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in sponsoring Khanna’s Yemen resolution.

“What we’re hoping is that Congress overrides the veto through other legislative means,” said Kate Kizer, the policy director for Win Without War, a coalition of activist groups that pushed Congress to pass the war powers legislation. “We’re hoping that they’ll also try to ban weapons sales to the coalition for at least a two-year basis, probably through the appropriations process.”

Win Without War is also calling for a ban on intelligence sharing and targeting assistance.

A congressional aide told Al-Monitor that the House Foreign Affairs Committee is also “working on legislation that will address the situation in Yemen.”

2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who sponsored the vetoed Yemen bill in the Senate, also hinted at further action, without specifying details.

“The decision by both the House and the Senate to use the War Powers Act is a major step forward in having Congress reclaim its constitutional authority on issues of war, and I think you’re going to see a lot more activity in that area,” Sanders told Al-Monitor.

Sanders’ bill passed the Senate 54-46 in March following months of mounting bipartisan anger over the civilian death toll and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. It gained considerably more traction following Riyadh’s murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Murphy and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, joined Sen. Lindsey Graham R-S.C., a staunch Trump ally, in reintroducing the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act earlier this year. The bill would permanently ban the United States from refueling coalition warplanes, which the Trump administration ended last year.

The bill would also ban offensive weapons sales to Riyadh and sanction Saudi royals allegedly involved in the Khashoggi murder, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., has introduced similar legislation in the House.

Graham, who chairs the Senate’s foreign aid spending panel, however, expressed skepticism at Democratic plans to defund the Saudi coalition through the appropriations process.

“I don’t mind punishing” Prince Mohammed, Graham said, “but I don’t want to reward Iran.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, another Trump ally, has so far refused to advance the bill.

“I have been begging the chairman to bring up legislation to deal with” Prince Mohammed, Graham told Al-Monitor. “If there’s ever an opportunity on the floor, I’m ready to vote, but right now it’s the worst of all worlds. [The Saudis] think we don’t care.”

Graham suggested that Risch is wary of advancing legislation Trump won’t sign. Risch himself declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., who controls the House floor as chairman of the Rules Committee, has introduced a separate bill banning Saudi Arabia from US arms sales, training and defense cooperation.

And Menendez continues to block a $2 million arms sale for Saudi Arabia, which includes $1 million in precision-guided munitions.

“At some point the Saudis are going to run out of” the munitions,” Murphy said. “They’re going to need to be restocked.”

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Found in: Yemen war

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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