House votes to end US role in Yemen war despite Trump veto threat

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Article Summary
The House voted Wednesday to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

The House voted 248-177 Wednesday to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, a move that could potentially cause President Donald Trump to issue the first veto of his presidency.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., had attempted to force a vote on the issue since 2017, only for Republican leadership to block a floor vote. But with Democrats now in control of the House, they have sought to capitalize on the bipartisan backlash stemming from the Yemen war and Saudi Arabia’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khanna views the vote as a way for Congress to reassert its authority over foreign military intervention in order to curtail Trump’s hard-line anti-Iran agenda in the region.

“This is such a powerful message that Congress is sending that we don’t want more engagement in the Middle East and we’re stopping the intervention in Yemen, even the smallest US involvement,” Khanna told reporters ahead of the vote. “Certainly, we’re going to prevent any broader conflict with Iran.”

Specifically, Khanna’s resolution directs Trump to remove “United States armed forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen” — with an exception for operations against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Republicans contend that Democrats are abusing the War Powers Act and that Democrats are taking an overly broad view of what constitutes “hostilities” under the Vietnam-era legislation. Progressive Democrats argue that “hostilities” include midair refueling of Saudi coalition warplanes, which the Trump administration ended last year, as well as logistical and targeting support.

The White House issued a veto threat on Monday, arguing that “the premise of the joint resolution is flawed” and that refueling and logistical support do not amount to “hostilities.”

“This resolution really stretches the definition of hostilities to cover non-US military operations by other countries,” Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, argued ahead of the vote. “It reinterprets US support to those countries as ‘engagement in hostilities.’ This overreach has dangerous implications far beyond Saudi Arabia.”

McCaul argued that passing the resolution would allow any lawmaker to use the War Powers Act to force a vote ending numerous US security cooperation agreements with other countries.

“This resolution misuses the tool to try to get at the different issue of security assistance to third countries,” said McCaul.

The Defense Department has no publicly disclosed US soldiers fighting the Houthis inside Yemen. But Yahoo News reported last year that the Defense Department is also conducting classified operations to assist the Saudis against the rebel group, which may involve ground troops.

While there was overwhelming Republican opposition in the House, the bill gained enough bipartisan traction in the Senate last year to pass 56-41. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who introduced the bill, expects it has enough support to pass again in the new Congress — even if it can’t override a presidential veto.

Still, today’s vote marks a significant victory for Win Without War, a coalition of anti-war activist groups that has lobbied Congress to end US involvement in the Yemen war for years. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which waded into the debate this week with a letter to lawmakers, did not fare as well.

The ACLU opposed an amendment offered by Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., clarifying that the Khanna bill does not include intelligence-sharing agreements. The House passed the Buck amendment 252-177.

“The Senate will now have to clean up the legislative mess passed by the House,” said Christopher Anders, the deputy director of the ACLU. “In a resolution that could have been used to shut down all American support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, the House instead caused more problems than it solved.”

The ACLU had voiced support for the Yemen resolution “if and only if” it included a separate amendment from Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass. That amendment would have further clarified that the resolution was neither an authorization for the use of military force nor a modification of existing authorities the Trump administration uses in operations against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

McGovern, who controls the House floor as chairman of the Rules Committee, had initially planned on offering the amendment. But he ultimately did not put it on the floor despite the ACLU’s efforts.

“While we think the amendment would have strengthened the resolution, after some thoughtful conversations, we believe the best course of action is to send it to the Senate with as few changes as possible from what they have already passed,” a spokesman for the House Rules Committee told Al-Monitor.

Republicans further altered the resolution with an unrelated amendment condemning anti-Semitism from Rep. David Kustoff, R-Tenn., which passed 424-0, with two voting present. Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., offered his support for the amendment.

The Kustoff amendment comes after a member of Engel’s committee, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., apologized earlier this week for her use of an “anti-Semitic trope” after coming under fire for condemning the influence of pro-Israel lobbying money in US politics.

The anti-Semitism amendment notably contains language calling for “strong bipartisan support for Israel” and opposition to “restrictive trade practices or boycotts fostered or imposed by any foreign country against other countries friendly to the United States.” Omar is one of two lawmakers who supports the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

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Found in: Trump, Yemen war

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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