The Senate is likely to proceed to a war powers resolution on U.S. involvement in Yemen next week, but the broader debate on policy toward Saudi Arabia may be short-circuited.
The Senate has not defined rules for floor debate on resolutions like the one that was recently discharged from the Foreign Relations Committee, and the chairman of that Senate panel intends to ask the chamber to set restrictive rules for amendments to war powers resolutions.
Exiting a Senate Republican lunch, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee outlined his plan to ensure that floor debate next week on a joint resolution aiming to stop U.S. backing of the Saudi-led war in Yemen avoids turning into an amendment free-for-all. He wants his colleagues to vote to define the universe of amendments narrowly, allowing only germane proposals.
“I would have control of the floor right when we start, and I could ask for a vote on germaneness that would set the right precedent for this type of debate,” Corker told reporters.
A stringent germaneness test would likely disallow sanctions amendments or other measures designed to rebuke Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul this year.
“I would sense today at 2 o’clock we would have an overwhelming vote for establishing germaneness if we’re going to use this particular procedure,” Corker said Thursday. “Whatever we do this time sets that precedent, and while there are members on our side that want to be able to offer amendments because they’re frustrated, understandably, with not being able to offer amendments and be heard, I get the sense that we have an opportunity ... to establish a germaneness standard.”
“If you end up having a vote-a-thon and you adopt a bunch of non-germane things, you could also get to a place where you corrode the ability to pass something with 51 votes,” Corker said.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the Republican leadership team, suggested that the procedural maneuvering and precedent-setting could be the most important part of the debate.
“A debate that we would define, maybe with a vote of the members, that would have to be germane, would actually be a pretty significant step in defining how the War Powers Act would be used in the future,” the Missouri Republican said.
Supporters of the procedural moves argue that not taking action to set a germaneness test, narrowly defining the amendments that senators may offer, could have real consequences because it would create an opportunity for senators to effectively hijack the floor to force simple-majority vote-a-ramas on matters unrelated to the congressional role overseeing U.S. military action abroad.
“Anything could be offered as an amendment, and at the end of 10 hours we’d vote on every amendment on everything that anybody wanted to offer,” Blunt said. “Which would be a pretty bad precedent to set.”
This specific legislation from a contingent led by Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee might actually have a better opportunity to pass the Senate if the amendments are restricted, since the supporters won’t have to face off against potential poison pills.
However, senators did not vote to proceed to the measure before heading for the airports, so any floor debate on on any such restrictions will have to wait until next week.
As for Saudi Arabia, Corker said he anticipated holding a markup of separate legislation from Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., that would suspend through fiscal 2020 almost all major arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The Senate may also move forward on a sense of the Senate resolution criticizing the Saudi government, though the wording may change from the resolution unveiled by South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham and others Wednesday night.