WASHINGTON — A Senate vote last week that was widely seen as a rebuke of President Donald Trump’s policy toward Saudi Arabia may turn out to be something less definitive as senators consider two other options that stop short of ending US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
One of those options would affect US actions in the war but would not end US participation, while the other is nonbinding, meaning it wouldn’t necessarily do anything.
Last week, the Senate approved on a 63–37 vote a move to consider a bill by Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee that would withdraw US support from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and from a war that has killed thousands of civilians.
That vote came the same afternoon that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis told senators that there was no smoking gun tying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the October murder of Saudi journalist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi. The refusal of CIA director Gina Haspel to brief the Senate angered many senators, with Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, saying he voted to move the bill out of committee because he was “pissed” at the Trump administration’s handling of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi killing.
But the Senate delayed a vote on the measure itself until this week, and now appears unlikely to consider the legislation before next week. Meanwhile, the two other options seem to be on the table.
One of those was introduced originally in November by Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana who is also on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and who has long been critical of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
That bill, which has not yet made it out of committee, would not withdraw US support from the war but would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and impose mandatory sanctions on those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. The bill “could be injected into that chaos at some point, or it could also be considered by the committee before the year wraps up,” a Democratic Senate aide said.
Proponents of that bill argue that it would have greater impact on halting the war in Yemen than the bill the Senate voted to move forward last week. “Even if Congress were able to override a veto and [the Sanders–Murphy–Lee bill] became law, it would fail to achieve its stated objective because the administration rejects the premise of the Sanders–Lee legislation related to ‘hostilities’ in Yemen,” Young argued back in March. Sen. Bob Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, similarly suggested that the Sanders–Murphy–Lee bill is about sending a message while the Menendez–Young one is about affecting operations.
The third option, a nonbinding resolution, was introduced on Wednesday by Graham, Young, Florida Republican Marco Rubio, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, and Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey. That resolution says that the Senate believes that the Saudi crown prince is responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and Khashoggi’s murder, and urges the Trump administration to hold all parties, including the crown prince, responsible.
Whether the proposed resolution is a complement to the Sanders–Murphy–Lee legislation or a substitute for it is in dispute.
Coons’ office called the resolution an “addition” to the bill. But Rubio’s office said that Rubio does not support the Sanders–Murphy–Lee bill.
It is unclear what, exactly, the resolution on its own would do, aside from passing responsibility for accountability back to the White House and expressing that the US Senate is upset with the crown prince.
“From my perspective, a resolution is nothing more than a press release into the Senate record,” was the reaction of the Democratic aide.