In a rebuke to the White House, the Senate cast a procedural vote Wednesday to advance a resolution that would cut off most U.S. military aid to Saudi Arabia’s war operations in Yemen.
The Senate voted 63-37 to agree to a motion to discharge the Foreign Relations Committee from considering the measure, which authorizes the chamber to begin mulling the resolution, a debate that is likely to occur next week.
The Senate’s action also came on the heels of a White House veto threat of the resolution, arguing it “would harm bilateral relationships in the region” and hamper counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
The vote was a major reversal of the Senate’s 55-44 vote in March to table the same resolution. The 19-vote swing is a sign of congressional disaffection with the Saudi regime in the wake of the murder of Saudi-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi and continued reports of civilian casualties in Yemen.
The War Powers Act resolution, which is sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., would only allow continued U.S. military operations in Yemen that are aimed against al-Qaida.
For Sen. Bob Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, and perhaps others, the vote to advance the resolution was not necessarily an endorsement of its merits but “a vote on our ability to have a debate as it relates to our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
Still, the Senate’s decision was a major rebuke to the Trump administration. The vote came just hours after Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged senators in a closed-door briefing to vote against advancing the measure.
Senators after the briefing said they were upset the Trump administration did not allow the CIA director to brief them on the murder of a Saudi journalist and indicated they would continue to raise the issue, including through legislative means.
“Not having Gina Haspel, the CIA director, at this briefing is a cover-up to a critical question that the members of the Senate have as to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and a critical element of U.S.-Saudi relationships,” Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez told reporters. “It’s outrageous that the Senate can be stonewalled from hearing from the CIA director.”
The New Jersey Democrat said he respected Pompeo and Mattis but added: “I don’t need them to characterize the information of the CIA and the intelligence community. I need to hear it directly. It tells me volumes about what really is going on here.”
No direct connection?
Pompeo told reporters after the briefing: “There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi.”
Watch: Trump Suggests ‘Rogue Killers’ Could Be Responsible for Saudi Journalist’s Death
A few senators said the CIA’s absence from the briefing could impact their colleagues’ decision on whether to vote to cut off military support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Sen. Lindsey Graham thinks the U.S. military should continue its involvement in Yemen but said he also is prepared to vote against priority items such as the Trump administration’s nominations and a possible end-of-the-year spending package until he receives a CIA briefing about Khashoggi. Graham voted to advance the resolution.
“I’m talking about any key vote,” the South Carolina Republican said. “Anything that you need me for to get out of town, I ain’t doing it until we hear from the CIA.”
Corker told reporters earlier Wednesday that it was clear Crown Prince Mohammed played a role in the October murder in Turkey of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, if for no other reason than the crown prince maintains a tight grip on the intelligence agency that carried out the assassination. He accused the Trump administration of “dancing on the head of a pin” to keep from acknowledging that reality.
“The fact that we haven’t forced him to come clean is creating a problem and Congress — imperfectly as we always do — is likely to respond to this,” Corker said. He added that he believes the administration knows “we are very likely to support a vehicle that allows us to somehow or another address this since the administration appears to be unwilling to do so.”
The Tennessee Republican raised the possibility of amending the Yemen resolution, which he predicted would increase the number of supporters in the Senate. Corker did not say how he would like to see it modified.
Searching for a response
Other Republicans who do not support the Yemen resolution said they think it is important for Congress to send a legislative reprimand to Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi murder.
Sen. James Lankford said he was still against cutting off military support because he believed such an action would lead to more civilian casualties in Yemen rather than fewer. Since early 2015, the U.S. military has tried, with limited success, to steer the Saudi-led coalition away from air strikes on civilian targets like hospitals and school buses.
“We have 17 individuals that have been sanctioned already. That should be a beginning point, not an end point,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “We should continue to confront Saudi Arabia more and more. This is the kind of behavior we expect from Russia and North Korea. We do need to confront that.”
And Sen. Marco Rubio in a video statement before Wednesday’s vote said he opposes the resolution because he believes the War Powers Act is unconstitutional even as he finds the Khashoggi murder reprehensible.
“We don’t need to destroy or walk away from our alliance with Saudi Arabia, but we most certainly need to recalibrate it,” the Florida Republican said. “They cannot continue to do this sort of recklessness. It undermines them and ultimately undermines us. I hope we can deal with that issue seriously, but separately.”
If the Sanders-Lee resolution does not pass, Corker said he could see members of the Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee adding language regarding Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi to the final fiscal 2019 foreign aid spending bill.
Another possibility is new legislation from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would require the Director of National Intelligence within one month to issue an unclassified report into the individuals that participated in, ordered or “were otherwise complicit in” the death of Khashoggi.
Corker and Menendez earlier this month invoked the Global Magnitsky Law to force the administration within four months to inform Congress on what role the Saudi crown prince played in Khashoggi’s murder.
Niels Lesniewski and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.