WASHINGTON ― Five Democrats saved House Republicans from an embarrassing floor defeat Wednesday, voting with the GOP on a farm bill rule that controversially included language blocking a vote on U.S. involvement in Yemen.
The rule ― which set up consideration for the farm bill ― waived a War Powers Resolution–based measure that could have given Democrats a floor vote on ending U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led coalition blamed for thousands of deaths and widespread starvation in Yemen.
GOP leadership sneaked the Yemen provision into the farm bill rule on Tuesday night, enraging many Democrats and some Republicans critical of U.S. support for the Saudis. It appeared to be a pre-emptive move to protect the Trump administration’s Yemen policy because the Democratic-backed measure held privileged status, which meant it had to be considered, and its advocates were seeking to bring it up soon after expected passage of a similar bill in the Senate as a way to send an even stronger rebuke of the kingdom and a military campaign held largely responsible for the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had already stripped privilege from similar legislation almost immediately after beginning the lame duck session, but his maneuver this week is far more dramatic because it blocks the current Yemen bill and any other similar legislation.
“This is unprecedented,” said the measure’s principal author. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who has pushed proposals targeting the Yemen policy throughout the current congressional term. “Speaker Ryan is preventing Congress from conducting our constitutional duty and … breaking the rules of the House. While this is happening, the United States Senate is debating and voting on this issue.”
Democratic leaders Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.), Adam Smith (Wash.) and Eliot Engel (N.Y.), were united behind Khanna’s Yemen proposal, and a mix of absences and GOP opposition to the rule meant that had the Democrats held the line, it would have forced Republicans to remove the language on the Yemen debate. Eighteen Republicans voted against the rule ― a rare act of floor defiance, as rule votes almost always go along party lines.
But support from those five Democrats ― Jim Costa (Calif.), Al Lawson (Fla.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.) and David Scott (Ga.) ― meant Ryan’s gambit succeeded. Democratic opponents of the Yemen policy felt let down and were scrambling to understand why they lost those members, a congressional aide told HuffPost. Party activists like Tommy Vietor, a former aide to President Barack Obama, are already rallying opposition to the five online. “Anyone want to primary some Democrats who voted to continue slaughtering civilians in Yemen?” Vietor wrote on Twitter. “Let’s discuss.”
Some of those five Democrats might have been interested in preserving the glide path for the farm bill, but had the rule gone down, Republicans likely would have just removed the Yemen language and voted on the farm bill rule again, though GOP leaders could have inserted the War Powers provisions into a similar rule when they had fewer absences.
Peterson, who is the ranking member on the Agriculture Committee and rallied Democratic votes to save the farm bill, told The Washington Post on Wednesday, “I’ll be damned if I let anybody screw [the farm bill] up.”
He added that he didn’t know “a damn thing” about the war in Yemen but he didn’t think the legislation the rule blocked would have done much. “All it did was say they couldn’t have a vote or something. Didn’t authorize anything. It didn’t, you know. Our party gets off on tangents. It’s ridiculous.”
There were 17 Republicans absent from the rule vote Wednesday. Many of those Republicans were voted out of Congress on this past Election Day. But there were also six Democrats missing from the vote. Democrats could have blocked the rule if those Democrats had shown up and voted against it.
Of the 18 Republicans who voted against the rule, at least 13 are members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. The Freedom Caucus has traditionally opposed GOP leaders legislating on the rule ― a tactic in which leadership uses a procedural vote like a rule to add, remove or block legislation.
Republicans once decried those procedural gimmicks, but they’ve shown an increasing comfort with legislating on the rule. While Ryan came to the speakership promising a return to “regular order,” he has wielded the gavel by tightly controlling what bills and amendments can get votes on the floor.
And while Ryan said at the end of 2015, when he became speaker, that he wanted to vote on a new Authorization for Use of Military Force that would end the broad 2001 AUMF ― a tacit acknowledgement that Congress should exercise more oversight of the murky justifications behind U.S. military interventions like the support for the Saudi campaign ― it’s a fitting end to Ryan’s reign that one of his last acts as speaker was to block a critical debate on when America should go to war.
The GOP has “once again taken the position that ending or even debating the U.S. role in the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet is not worth serious consideration, even as the United Nations warns the war-induced famine in Yemen could soon become the worst famine in 100 years,” said Paul Kawika Martin of the advocacy group Peace Action in a statement about the move. “Paul Ryan and others who supported the de-privileging of this Yemen bill, and with it the effective de-privileging of Congress’ authority on war, are condemning more Yemeni civilians to die horrible deaths, and condemning our nation as a democracy in name only.”