WASHINGTON ― Advocacy groups with powerful grassroots networks around the country are pressuring senators to vote for unprecedented legislation from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) that would immediately end U.S. support for a controversial Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting in Yemen since 2015.
At noon on Thursday, all Senate offices received a letter organized by the progressive group Win Without War and the conservative organization FreedomWorks and signed by 53 other outfits, including Indivisible, Our Revolution, CODEPINK, MoveOn.Org and CREDO. Activists are organizing a special call-in day on Friday to add to the more than 5,000 calls on the issue that constituents have already made to members. And campaigners plan a flurry of face-to-face meetings with congressional staff in the run up to a vote expected next week.
“This war of attrition has been waged using U.S. weapons, military support, and personnel without consent of Congress for far too long,” reads the letter, which was provided to HuffPost. “Congress has a constitutional and ethical duty to ensure any and all U.S. military operations comply with domestic and international law, and U.S. participation in the civil war in Yemen raises numerous legal and moral questions that must be resolved.”
The Senate bill they support cites the 1973 War Powers Resolution and Arms Export Control Act to say that Congress has the responsibility to expeditiously weigh in on the war and directs a halt to the U.S. role in it.
The Trump administration has responded to the bill by questioning its legal basis. In a letter to Senate leaders obtained by HuffPost last week, the acting general counsel of the Defense Department argued that lawmakers legislation cannot invoke the War Powers Resolution and force an end to the policy because American support to the coalition, dominated by Saudi Arabia and fellow U.S. partner the United Arab Emirates, does not constitute “hostilities” against the Iran-backed rebels the coalition is fighting. Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community officials made their case to Congressional staff Wednesday, and Yemen has now been added to the agenda of a classified briefing for senators themselves next Wednesday that was previously only about Syria, two sources told HuffPost.
But many legal scholars doubt the Defense Department’s logic, noting that the House of Representatives last year acknowledged that U.S. aerial refueling and intelligence is going to Saudi and UAE planes bombing the rebels. Many campaigners on the left and right agree.
“Our view is that Article 1, section 8 [of the Constitution] makes it very clear that Congress has the authority to declare war,” said Jason Pye, the vice president for legislative affairs at FreedomWorks. He noted that the Trump administration is sending Capitol Hill updates on U.S. activity in Yemen obligated under the War Powers legislation ― suggesting that it believes it is relevant in this case.
“This war of attrition has been waged using U.S. weapons, military support, and personnel without consent of Congress for far too long.”
As rights groups have made repeated war crimes allegations against the Saudi-UAE coalition, and starvation and medical crises for millions in Yemen have gotten worse, lawmakers have tried several times to signal their disapproval of the policy initiated by President Barack Obama and continued under President Donald Trump. Despite hearings and proxy votes that have drawn more attention to the war ― in one case last summer almost preventing a key weapons sale to Saudi Arabia ― no legislative attempt to change course in the conflict has gone further than a compromise resolution passed in the House last year that acknowledged the U.S. government is not authorized to fight the rebels.
Activists say they are more confident about the impact of the Senate legislation. The way it was crafted means it must be dealt with on the floor, forcing lawmakers to be on the record rather than negotiate over the issue in backrooms.
Kate Kizer, the policy director for Win Without War, suggested another reason for optimism is how much concern there is now among the public about Trump’s general bellicosity.
“It’s in the context of mission creep under this president… his belief that he does have the constitutional authority that he can just launch strikes and drop bombs over countries,” she said. Trump has bombed Syria, expanded commanders’ authorities to call in strikes against the self-described Islamic State fight and threatened North Korea.
“What is essentially at stake is ... this would mean that Congress would have to vote on all these different military entanglements around the world,” said Kate Gould of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, on the prospective vote. Trump aides “know that this is a game-changing vote,” she added.
Three influential Democrats have already co-sponsored the bill: Democratic Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Cory Booker (N.J.). Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer seems positively inclined, two sources told HuffPost. Schumer’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
While prominently anti-war Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is not yet on board, citing his opposition to a carve-out in the bill that would allow continued U.S. actions in Yemen against Al-Qaeda’s branch there, advocates say they are working to have him endorse the legislation. They argue that the more narrow consideration of whether America ought to conduct military actions abroad without any official authorization should be separate from the debate about how the U.S. relies on dated congressional resolutions to justify its pursuit of groups like ISIS.
Saudi Arabia’s powerful congressional lobbying operation does not yet appear to be focused on the Yemen legislation in the Senate, Kizer said. They are instead relying on the Trump administration’s work to counter it, she added. Saudi authorities have been trying to draw Washington’s attention to new Saudi aid plans for Yemen, but humanitarian groups say the program is lacking because it does not include key actions like fully lifting an ongoing blockade on the critical port of Hodeidah.