Congress Is Finally Done With the War in Yemen

U.S. lawmakers are making a historic push for peace. But a Trump veto is all but assured.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Yemenis dig graves for children who where killed when their bus was hit during a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on Aug. 9, 2018. (Stringer/AFP/ Getty Images)
Yemenis dig graves for children who where killed when their bus was hit during a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on Aug. 9, 2018. (Stringer/AFP/ Getty Images)

The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to end U.S. military involvement in Yemen’s bloody civil war in a historic measure that sets the stage for a showdown between the White House and Capitol Hill over the president’s ability to wage wars without congressional approval.

It marks the first time in history that legislation invoking the 1970s-era War Powers Resolution, aimed at reasserting Congress’s role in U.S. wars abroad, passed both the House and Senate. It now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk, where most officials expect the president to veto the measure.

The vote was on a bipartisan resolution, though it largely fell on party lines, with only 16 Republicans joining Democrats in favor for a final tally of 247 to 175.

The Senate passed a coinciding resolution in March to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen by a vote of 54 to 46, well short of the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto.

While the vote marks a significant political rebuke to Trump, it remains unclear what impact the passing of the resolution will have on the situation in Yemen, where the United Nations is struggling to implement a fragile peace agreement it brokered between the warring parties in December 2018.

In Washington, the U.S. role in the Yemen conflict has become part of broader political debates about both Trump’s cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia after Riyadh’s role in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the executive branch’s unfettered ability to wage war without congressional buy-in.

“Today, the U.S. House of Representatives took a clear stand against war and famine and for Congress’ war powers by voting to end our complicity in the war in Yemen,” said Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, both champions of the legislative push to end U.S. involvement in Yemen. “Finally, the U.S. Congress has reclaimed its constitutional authority over matters of war and peace.”

Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, opposed the bill, arguing that invoking the War Powers Resolution wasn’t appropriate, as the Defense Department has said no U.S. troops are engaged in hostilities in Yemen.

“This resolution does nothing to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. It does nothing to secure justice for the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It does not even make real decisions on U.S. security assistance to Saudi Arabia,” he said.

For months, lawmakers and the Trump administration have engaged in fierce debates over whether the U.S. military should continue supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen as it fights Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The issue centers on the devastating humanitarian toll of the conflict, where nearly half the population, some 14 million people, are on the brink of famine, and some 22 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance. Yemen is now considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, due in part to a deadly bombing campaign by the Saudi coalition that has indiscriminately targeted civilians and reduced to rubble some of the developing county’s vital infrastructure.

“The death toll is mounting, and our country’s hands aren’t clean,” said Scott Paul, an expert on Yemen with the humanitarian organization Oxfam America.

The Trump administration has strongly pushed back on congressional efforts to curb its involvement in the conflict, which includes arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition as well as intelligence and surveillance support. It argues that the civilian death toll from Saudi airstrikes would be much higher without U.S. input and precision-guided munitions, and that the United States cannot ignore the threat from terrorist groups and Iran’s influence in the country.

“If you truly care about Yemeni lives, you’d support the Saudi-led effort to prevent Yemen from turning into a puppet state of the corrupt, brutish Islamic Republic of Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in March, addressing lawmakers who opposed U.S. involvement in the war.

In an April 1 statement, the White House said the resolution “would raise serious constitutional concerns to the extent it seeks to override the President’s determination as Commander in Chief.” If it were presented to Trump, the statement said, “his senior advisors would recommend he veto the joint resolution.”

In late 2018, the United States ended the refueling of Saudi aircraft engaged in the bombing campaign following widespread congressional backlash over Saudi Arabia’s role in the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and Virginia resident.

The vote follows months of arduous behind-the-scenes politicking and Republican efforts to derail the measure through procedural gambits. In February, the House voted to cut U.S. military assistance for the war, but a last-minute procedural motion to condemn anti-Semitism was added to the bill by Republican lawmakers. The addition of the unrelated motion stripped the bill of its “privileged” status, which according to arcane procedural rules meant the Senate no longer had to rush a vote on it to deliver it to the president’s desk. The maneuvering meant the Senate had to go back to square one with its own bill again.

Even with a veto, some Democrats say the vote reflects mounting Republican anger with the administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. “It’s a step in the right direction that at least on measures such as these, there is some Republican support in Congress,” said one Democratic congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Passed in 1973, the War Powers Resolution gives Congress the authority to end the deployment of U.S. military forces without an official declaration of war.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the ability to wage war is shared by the two branches of government, with Congress having the ability to fund and declare war, while the president leads military action as commander in chief. Despite this, presidents have gone to war on numerous occasions throughout the 20th and 21st century without congressional approval.

Paul, of Oxfam America, said Trump vetoing the bill would be a blow to the United States’ international standing on the Yemen conflict. “A veto from President Trump would send its own sobering message to Yemeni families caught in the daily hell of war: Our administration simply does not care,” he said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack