WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration and GOP leadership started lobbying against a bipartisan resolution questioning the U.S. role in the civil war in Yemen before Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) even filed it on Wednesday morning.
The Defense Department’s acting general counsel sent Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a letter criticizing the resolution on Tuesday. That letter was sent to all Senate offices Wednesday morning, hours before a high-profile news conference at which Sanders and Lee argued that current American efforts in Yemen ― providing aerial refueling and intelligence to a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed rebels ― are unconstitutional because Congress has never explicitly approved them.
William S. Castle of the Pentagon disagrees. His letter maintains that the U.S. support does not count as “hostilities” because American forces are not having exchanges of fire with the rebels, known as the Houthis, or commanding the coalition. It also suggests that the resolution threatens American authority to combat the local branch of the Islamic State ― and even holds that Congress cannot end the policy because it is the president’s prerogative, adopting an expansive view of presidential control over war-making that some experts likened to controversial George W. Bush-era arguments once HuffPost published the letter.
At stake is a debate ― the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the Senate for decades ― over how America wages war.
The resolution from Sanders, Lee and Murphy is guaranteed a vote on the Senate floor because of authorities outlined in arms control legislation, staffers say; the U.S. is a major supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia and its chief partner in the war, the United Arab Emirates.
While all three senators have been top critics of the deadly effects of the U.S. support for the Saudi-UAE coalition, including food shortages for close to 20 million people and the deaths of thousands of civilians, they want the ensuing debate to focus on the constitutional question of whether the president should have been allowed to initiate such a policy rather than the wisdom of the strategy itself, staffers told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday.
“We believe that, as Congress has not declared war or authorized military force in this conflict, the United States’ involvement in Yemen is unconstitutional and unauthorized, and U.S. military support of the Saudi coalition must end,” Sanders said Wednesday. Lee said the resolution will allow Congress to reassert its authority over foreign policy by voting on whether to withdraw American forces currently aiding the coalition. (The bill specifically excludes U.S. forces fighting Yemen’s al Qaeda branch.)
Their resolution invokes the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which states that the U.S. is involved in a conflict if it is helping to command or even just “participate in the movement of” another country’s forces as they fight. While the Pentagon letter says that resolution does not apply because U.S. forces are not engaged in such activities against the Houthis, it also notes that American planes currently provide refueling to the Saudi and UAE planes that go on to bomb Houthi-controlled areas.
This week is just the start of the battle over the resolution. A House version prompted complicated weeks-long negotiations last year, failing to produce a vote but forcing the House to officially acknowledge that the policy was not covered by authorizations for the use of military force passed after 9/11.
Saudi Arabia has already begun expanded outreach to lawmakers because of the wave of criticism it has received over Yemen, sending them weekly updates on its humanitarian work for the victims of the conflict that experts and aid groups say it is deliberately worsening. One set arrived in Capitol Hill inboxes around the same time as the Pentagon letter.
And it’s already clear the Trump administration, which has developed a close relationship with Riyadh, will be working against the proposal, too. The senators involved have been in touch with the executive branch, staffers said Tuesday; they did not comment on how those conversations went.
If all goes according to plan, the resolution will move out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by early March and can then be called up at any time for a debate and a vote. That means there’s a chance it could even come up on or around March 19, when the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, arrives in Washington for meetings at the start of a U.S. tour that could last close to two weeks.
Its supporters are already rallying their allies for a fight they say could be monumental. Actor and activist Mark Ruffalo tweeted in support of the resolution on Wednesday, and national security experts are already praising it.
“There is a reason why the Founders gave the power to declare war to the Congress, the body closest to the people, to decide when and where our military will fight,” said retired Gen. Paul Eaton of the Vet Voice Foundation in a statement shared with HuffPost. “We can no longer turn a blind eye to our worldwide interventions without clear authorization.... If the President or members of Congress believe that support for the Yemen War is in the U.S. interests, they should argue for it. They had best be articulate because many of our citizens see no plausible explanation for why backing the Saudis is helpful in a region saturated by violence.”
Read the Pentagon’s letter criticizing the resolution below: