Senate Votes Thursday on Yemen Measure Aimed at Punishing Saudis

(Bloomberg) -- The Senate plans to vote Thursday on a resolution that seeks to withdraw U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen.

The resolution, S.J.Res. 54, proposed as a punishment for the killing of dissident columnist Jamal Khashoggi, would aim to end U.S. assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The chamber is set to begin considering amendments to the measure at 1:45 p.m.

President Donald Trump has sought to play down Saudi Arabia’s responsibility for the killing and dismembering of Khashoggi, instead choosing to emphasize the importance of the two countries’ alliance. The United Nations has said as many as 14 million people could be at risk in Yemen coming months as famine spreads.

The Senate voted 60-39 to begin debate on the resolution. Senators say passage would send a strong message to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman because it targets his most important foreign policy priority. The White House has threatened a veto.

Earlier Wednesday, the House voted to block members from forcing that chamber to vote on the Yemen resolution this month. Without action in both chambers by year’s end, it will be up to lawmakers to restart the entire debate when their new session starts in January.

The House action means the only rebuke of Saudi Arabia with a realistic chance of passing the House and Senate this year is a separate non-binding resolution condemning Prince Mohammed as being responsible for Khashoggi’s death.

Senate Republicans and Democrats were unable to agree on a stronger proposal to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia and impose sanctions on those involved in Khashoggi’s killing. A bipartisan group of senators said Wednesday they’ll try again to get a vote on that measure in January.

Congress needs to send a message to allies that "you cannot kill with impunity and believe you can get away with it," said Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

GOP Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a senior voice on foreign policy and ally of Trump, repeated his argument that the president is "wrong about what’s going on" with Prince Mohammed.

"They need us a lot more than we need them," Graham said. The U.S. needs to insist on "fundamental change" in Saudi Arabia, he said, adding, "I have a fundamental difference with the president as to how to bring that about."

Haspel Briefing

The measure on Yemen gained momentum in the Senate after a small group of senators received a briefing from CIA Director Gina Haspel last week that they said convinced them the crown prince was responsible for the killing.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the outgoing Senate Foreign Relations chairman, said the Yemen resolution likely has the votes to clear the Senate. He said he anticipates the non-binding resolution related to Khashoggi’s killing will come before the Senate before the end of the year.

Earlier Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he opposed the Yemen resolution and urged senators to instead approve the non-binding resolution holding Prince Mohammed accountable for Khashoggi’s death.

McConnell said the Yemen resolution threatens to upend U.S.-Saudi relations, could spark a constitutional fight with the Trump administration over war powers, and might begin a protracted floor debate that could take away time other year-end business.

“There are more careful ways the Senate could express its concern about the conflict in Yemen or our partnership with Saudi Arabia without taking such a blunt instrument to the policy in this area,” McConnell said.

A group of bipartisan House leaders received a private briefing from Haspel on Wednesday. Afterward, California’s Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said, "We ought to suspend our support for the Saudi effort in Yemen. I think we ought to suspend our arms sales. And I think we ought to consider what stronger sanctions are warranted."

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