How to get an up-or-down vote on U.S. involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen

Sanaa, August 2017, via Human Rights Watch.

There is a clear path to an up-or-down vote on ending U.S. complicity with the Saudi war in Yemen.

It starts with House Democrats, as soon as they are in power, passing a strong bill demanding an end to U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition’s catastrophic bombing of Yemen – and invoking the War Powers Act.

That invocation will, in turn, force a floor vote in the Senate that Republican leader Mitch McConnell cannot legally block, no matter how much he wants to.

The critical element here is the process triggered by the invocation of the War Powers Act, Also known as the War Powers Resolution, it was passed in 1973 — over the veto of Richard Nixon — to check the president’s power to commit U.S. forces to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress.

Not only does the War Powers Act reassert Congress’s role as the only branch of government Constitutionally permitted to declare war – it also establishes “congressional priority procedures” (in Sections 6 and 7) that prevent congressional leaders from blocking a floor vote.

Legislation pursuant to the Act – introduced by any member of Congress – automatically triggers a series of deadlines at the end of which the legislation becomes “the pending business” of the chamber, “and shall be voted on within three calendar days thereafter, unless such House shall otherwise determine by yeas and nays.”

Similarly, passage of legislation in one House automatically triggers a series of deadlines in the other, also ultimately leading to an up-or-down floor vote.

Practically speaking, that means that if the House passes legislation invoking the Act, it can’t get stuck in committee, or voted down in committee, and the Senate majority leader has no choice but to allow a vote. (Should the Senate choose to pass a different resolution about Yemen, there is also a series of deadlines for conference and a final vote.)

That has enormous value, Yale Law School Professor Bruce Ackerman wrote to me in an email. He suggested that “a majority of Senators would indeed support an appropriate resolution – which is precisely why the Trump Administration would vastly prefer it for Senator McConnell to keep the issue off the floor.”

And, he wrote, “At the very least… each Senator must stand up and be counted on the basic issue of whether Congress is to reclaim the war-making powers explicitly granted by the Founders.”

As it happens, California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna introduced a bill blocking U.S. support for hostilities in Yemen, invoking the War Powers Act – and just last week, the House leadership ignored the Act’s provisions and refused to let it come to the floor. In an entirely unprecedented move, House leaders stuck a line into an entirely unrelated bill – about the endangered status of wolves – simply declaring that the War Power Resolution “shall not apply to House Concurrent Resolution 138.”

Six Democrats and 195 Republicans voted to pass the bill-killer in wolf’s clothing, over the objections of 172 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Khanna cried foul: “In American history, never, never has the Speaker of the House and the majority denied a member of Congress a vote on matters of war and peace,” he said. “This is basically rendering ineffectual the War Powers Act.”

But Ackerman insists that Senate Republicans couldn’t get away with doing the same thing House Republicans did – because House Democrats now have the power to do something about it.

“The Democratic House should and will repudiate this precedent, and will have many tools at its disposal if the Senate does not live up to the law,” Ackerman argued. For instance, the House can “refuse to cooperate with the Senate leadership on key bills on their ‘wish list’ till they cooperate on this fundamental matter.”

An even partial assertion of the War Powers Act would be a sea change for Congress, which has repeatedly failed to exercise its constitutional war powers since essentially giving George W. Bush a blank check in the form of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which they allowed him and his successors to interpret liberally.

Ideally, it would actually be the beginning of a wider exploration of war issues.

“Once they take office, House Democrats can and should start holding hearings to find out more about how the President is using U.S. military force around the world without seeking support from Congress,” Oona Hathaway, a Yale Law School professor specializing in international law, wrote to me.

“For example, the U.S. strikes in Syria in April violated both the U.N. Charter and the U.S. Constitution—because they were never approved by Congress and were not taken in the self defense of the United States. The House Democrats can and should hold hearing to learn more about how the decisions to take these strikes were made.  And they should insist that the Trump Administration explain its interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force—particularly if it differs from that of previous administrations,” Hathaway continued.

“The next step should be to think about more comprehensive reform of the process for approving military operations, because the system is seriously broken.  There are no real prospects for serious reform in the next two years, but something more significant might be possible after 2020.”

The push to cut off support to the Saudi coalition is not new. Several members of both houses – following the lead of Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who’s been at it for three years – have been pursuing such legislation. Last November, the House overwhelmingly passed (336 to 30) a resolution simply stating the fact that Congress had not authorized U.S. military assistance in Yemen. The Senate got considerably closer in March, with a bill that called for a halt in American military support, getting 44 votes, including five from Republicans. If 10 Democrats hadn’t voted against, it would have passed.

The efforts have taken on extra urgency in the past several months.

A series of particularly tragic bombings by the Saudis – along with aggressive reporting by CNN, tying the bombs to U.S. defense manufacturers – called a rare bit of national attention to attacks such as one on a school bus in Yemen in early August that killed 40 children.

The New York Times in late October published haunting photos of emaciated Yemeni children, victims of a Saudi war effort that created a famine “of catastrophic proportions.”

But neither of those had nearly the effect in turning public sentiment against Saudi leaders and their Yemen war as the brutal, premeditated official assassination of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, and the ensuing attempted cover-up.

And on Tuesday, Donald Trump inextricably linked the Saudi cover-up, his own complicity with it, and U.S. support for the war in Yemen. He did that in a jaw-dropping official statement that, among other things, justified his embrace of the Saudi leader by endorsing the U.S.-supported war and calling it Iran’s fault.

For those reasons, House action appears to be inevitable, with support from the top down. House leader Nancy Pelosi expressed her views in a statement after Republicans tanked the Khanna bill.

“The conflict in Yemen has gone on for far too long,” she said, “leaving a permanent stain on the conscience of the world.”

“One thing is clear,” Ackerman wrote to me. “These questions were not on the table when the Republicans controlled both Houses. Elections have consequences – if the Democrats in the House  show that they are serious, the definitive end to American participation in the Yemen tragedy is in sight.”

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3 thoughts on “How to get an up-or-down vote on U.S. involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen”

  1. The Trump Administration does need to justify its’ use of the AUMF but the caveat “particularly if it differs from previous administrations” is not useful. Previous administrations, both W’s and Obama’s had equally broad interpretations.

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