Two U.S. Senate votes last week highlight Congressional opposition to President Trump’s foreign policy regarding Saudi Arabia. Although neither will bring about change in the short-term, they reflect bipartisan support in opposition to the president, which could eventually impact the President’s foreign policy initiatives.
The U.S. Senate voted twice last week to oppose the Trump administration’s Saudi policies. The two votes focused on opposition to the Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen and displeasure with the administration’s response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Neither resolution will cause a change in U.S. policy in the short-run, but they are both harbingers of future clashes over foreign policy in January, when a new Congress is seated that includes a House controlled by the Democratic party. The ability of Congress to constrain an administration’s foreign policies is limited, but these resolutions could signal the beginning of an escalation that could lead to action. The two votes this week illustrate limits to Congressional intervention and also the potential pathways ahead.
The first, adopted by unanimous consent, was a non-binding sense of the Senate resolution containing a number of statements. First and foremost, the Senate believes that the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi. Other statements included the sense of the Senate that there was not a military solution to the war in Yemen and that there was no statutory authority for U.S. involvement in the hostilities in Yemen. It also called for a number of things – a ceasefire, negotiations to end the war in Yemen, etc., — but it had no force of law behind its declarations.
The second vote, on Senate Joint Resolution 54, was a repeat on an attempt that failed last March. The measure, based on Congressional powers to declare war under the Constitution and the War Powers Act, requires the President to withdrawn U.S. forces from participating in hostilities towards Yemen unless Congress passes a declaration of war. This would involve the U.S. ceasing aerial targeting assistance, intelligence sharing, and mid-flight aerial refueling. The Trump administration has already stopped aerial refueling, and sent both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates an augmented bill for U.S. military services. However, intelligence support and targeting assistance are ongoing.
The measure was bipartisan both in its sponsorship and in the votes it garnered, passing 56-41. As a joint resolution, however, it will not be taken up by the House as that chamber passed a rule on Wednesday that blocks any Yemen-related bill from being considered in the last days of its session. Even if passed by both houses in a new Congress, sworn in on January 3, it faces the prospect of a Presidential veto. Even if a veto could be overridden – an unlikely possibility – this particular bill would have legal issues involved with separation of powers that would lead to court battles. One issue, at the very least, would be whether U.S. forces were actually involved in “hostilities” – something that both the Obama and Trump administrations have not acknowledged with regards to U.S. military actions related to Yemen.
If, however, a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress became concerned enough about the administration’s policies vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, they could adopt more effective measures cutting off funding for U.S. military activities – regardless of the question of “hostilities” – or cutting off arms sales. Specifically, Congress could prohibit the use of funds for ongoing sales of spares and maintenance for the Saudi armed forces – something that would bring Saudi operations to a halt in short order. While the war in Yemen continues to be a military, political, and humanitarian disaster, it is not clear – as the Khashoggi murder recedes in time – whether this is the priority issue on which a Democratic House and a bipartisan group of Senators want to challenge the Trump administration in the foreign policy sphere in the next two years.