Senate Scuttles Yemen Measure as Saudi Prince Meets With Trump

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(Bloomberg) -- The Senate scuttled a resolution opposed by the Trump administration that called on the U.S. military to stop aiding Saudi-led bombing in Yemen, acting the same day President Donald Trump and top lawmakers met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The 55-44 vote Tuesday shelves the measure indefinitely. Defense Secretary James Mattis met privately with Senate Republicans to oppose the measure hours before the vote. The administration contended the resolution could damage U.S.-Saudi relations as the two countries seek to develop an increasingly close partnership on issues such as isolating Iran and bolstering business ties.

The resolution sought to remove U.S. assistance from the fighting between a coalition led by Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. Thousands have died in air strikes and from a naval blockade that impeded humanitarian aid. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other co-sponsors contend the U.S. actions require authorization from Congress.

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Since 2015, the U.S. has provided the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen with air-to-air refueling, intelligence assessments and other military advice. It’s been estimated that at least 10,000 people have been killed or wounded in the fighting in Yemen. About 2 million people, out of a population of 28 million, have been displaced from their homes, and nearly 1 million have contracted cholera. The United Nations has called on the Saudi-led coalition to lift a blockade of Yemen’s Red Sea ports that raised the threat of widespread famine.

In a letter to Senate leaders last month, defense officials said the president has the authority to direct the U.S. actions because they don’t count as “hostilities” under the war powers resolution approved after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Removing U.S. forces “could call into question the statutory authority for ongoing U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen,” wrote William Castle, acting general counsel of the Defense Department.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who co-sponsored the resolution, S.J.Res. 54, criticized the administration’s argument that the U.S. actions must go further to meet the “hostilities” test.

“Please tell that to the people of Yemen, whose homes and lives are being destroyed by weapons marked ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ dropped by planes being refueled by the U.S. military on targets chosen with U.S. assistance,” Sanders said on the Senate floor.

Opponents, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Saudi Arabia is a vital ally in the Middle East amid a time of tension with Iran, Syria and other nations, and a withdrawal of U.S. involvement would greatly harm the relationship.

“The refueling of aircraft over the Red Sea does not equate to introducing U.S. forces into hostilities,” McConnell said on the Senate floor earlier Tuesday. “Nor does intelligence sharing. U.S. forces are not transporting Saudi forces into combat within Yemen by air, land or sea.”

Prince Mohammed on Sunday defended his country’s bombing campaign in Yemen at the outset of a three-week U.S. tour to generate good will for his nation. He said the rebels have launched missiles at his nation’s capital, Riyadh, and that the U.S wouldn’t tolerate comparable attacks on its cities from, for example, Mexico.

Prince Mohammed accused rebel forces of exploiting the situation in Yemen to win sympathy from the international community.

“I hope that this militia ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community,” he said in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.”

Prince Mohammed met Tuesday with Trump, McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other congressional leaders. He also plans to meet with executives from Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google during his first trip to the U.S. since becoming crown prince. In New York, he’ll host a forum for business executives and meet UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and he’ll visit Saudi oil company Aramco’s research center in Houston on April 7.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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