WASHINGTON ― Republican leadership in the House of Representatives moved Tuesday evening to quash a bill that would end U.S. support for the brutal Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
Coming on the first day of a lame-duck session — the GOP’s final few weeks controlling the lower chamber — the bid surprised anti-war advocates and top Democrats who have been rallying opposition to the controversial Yemen war for months and made clear they wanted a serious debate on the matter soon after the midterms. Many involved in the fight became aware of the Republican gambit only earlier in the day. (HuffPost was the first to report that it would take place, citing a Democratic aide and an activist in touch with multiple Capitol Hill offices.)
Soon after meeting at 5 p.m. Eastern time, the GOP-controlled House Rules Committee adopted a rule stripping privileged status from the Yemen bill. The full House will now consider that rule Wednesday afternoon, and the Republicans’ plan is to hold their caucus together to pass it along party lines.
If a majority of lawmakers vote to remove the privilege, the legislation will become just another proposal that House leadership is not required to bring up for debate. That strategy would save lawmakers from having to vote either to keep assisting in the bombing of civilians or to anger an American ally and President Donald Trump, who has grown close to the Saudis.
The Republican establishment torpedoed a previous version of the bill — which argues that the U.S. assistance is illegal because Congress never voted on it — last November through similar Rules Committee maneuvering. But the move on Tuesday was striking because conditions in Yemen have grown far more dire, anger in Congress toward Saudi Arabia has spiked since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Republicans’ claim to represent what Americans want is far weaker after the Nov. 6 elections.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), other sympathetic legislators like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and human rights groups have pushed hard over the past year to try the fight again and hold the vote. In recent months, they have gained the public support of the Democratic future chairmen of the most important House panels dealing with foreign policy ― Reps. Adam Smith (Wash.) and Eliot Engel (N.Y.) ― and party leaders like Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.).
Meanwhile, the United Nations has repeatedly called the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and aid groups have issued increasingly urgent warnings over the past two months that more than 14 million people are on the brink of famine.
Even the Trump administration has started to hint at a rollback of support by saying it plans to end aerial refueling by American planes of bombers belonging to the Saudis and their ally the United Arab Emirates.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), pointed to that change as evidence Washington is already changing course on the war and there’s no need for further House debate. “The U.S. is no longer providing the very support that this bill seeks to cut off thus making it unnecessary,” she wrote in an email Tuesday evening. “We negotiated a compromise resolution with this same sponsor [last year] and passed that resolution. The House has spoken on this issue.”
Strong’s comment also repeated the Republican argument that the War Powers Act, the legal basis for the Yemen bill, does not apply here since U.S. forces are not actually doing the bombing and ground fighting. Backed by the Trump administration, particularly the Pentagon, GOP lawmakers have for years used that line to tightly limit discussion of the American role in the war. Now they’re combining that long-standing argument with the new point that since the refueling operation is finished, the Yemen bill has no purpose.
But the fighting is now getting worse in densely populated parts of Yemen ― and American weapons, intelligence and international diplomatic support remain central to the campaign. Analysts saw Trump’s refueling decision and recent pressure on the Saudis to support peace talks as a strategy to stop lawmakers from moving in a tougher way than he would like.
Critics of the war told HuffPost the GOP move is disappointing but not debilitating. They plan to lobby Republicans before Wednesday’s vote by directly criticizing Ryan and others for providing cover for a campaign accused of war crimes, and they note that whatever happens, similar legislation will come up soon in the Senate and could be considered after Democrats take control of the House in January.
This article has been updated with a comment from House Speaker Paul Ryan’s spokeswoman.