WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators are seeking to force a vote on a war powers resolution for Yemen as early as Tuesday in an attempt to reign in what they say are unchecked presidential powers and to extract the United States military from the bloody civil war that has become a worsening humanitarian crisis.
The effort is being led by an ideologically eclectic group, including Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and represents the latest attempt by members of Congress to reign in executive authority over the use of force.
The senators' actions also comes just as Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman travels to the United States and will meet with President Donald Trump. The U.S. has been providing Saudi Arabia military support to fight in Yemen.
But the measure, which would force the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. military from Yemen until President Trump receives congressional approval, also has many critics. The Trump administration and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are actively working against it, and even some Democrats worry that this resolution isn’t the right way to force the president’s hand in a deadly war.
Lee insists that Congress has abdicated its responsibility for too long and that the U.S. is playing too significant a role in Yemen's civil war to allow it to go unchecked.
“I would like to see the Senate exercising its prerogative in the war declaration process,” Lee said in a phone interview. “The power to declare war was granted to Congress under Article 1, Section 8. There are few things that are more consequential than the power to decide when a nation goes to war.”
The U.S. is providing intelligence, reconnaissance and midair fighter refueling for Saudi Arabia, which is fighting on behalf of the Yemeni government in what some say has become a proxy war against Iran, which is supporting the Houthi rebels in that nation.
The U.S. military is currently investigating a botched U.S. raid Trump authorized just five days after his inauguration last year that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL and a number of civilians, including women and children.
McConnell has enlisted the Defense Department in the effort to stop the measure, asking the Pentagon to detail their opposition in a letter. The Pentagon’s acting general counsel, William S. Castle, wrote that the resolution would “undermine our ability to foster long-term” military relationships with allies. The Pentagon also argued that the resolution’s “premise is flawed” and that the U.S. role in Yemen is too “limited” to require congressional approval.
Additionally, the administration conducted an all-member briefing last week to persuade senators that the U.S. mission has been successful and limits imposed by Congress would harm American security and further exacerbate civilian atrocities. The meeting was led by Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan; Maj. Gen. Buck Elton of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, John C. Rood.
Murphy called the briefing “incredibly misleading.”
“That is the most frustrating briefing I’ve been in as a member of Congress," he said. "That wasn’t a briefing; that was spin about what great things were going on, how the Saudi’s desperately want a negotiated solution, about how we are making civilian casualties much less severe.”
He added, “So I thought that briefing was a blatant effort to ignore reality without any discussion of the real subtleties of the fight inside Yemen.”
The senators are using a mechanism, known as a privileged resolution, for the first time in Senate history to force a vote, enabling them to overcome the objections of colleagues, including McConnell, who controls what is brought to the Senate floor.
But its prospects of passage are dim. Even senators inclined to limit the presidential war powers are questioning the resolution and its potential impact.
“This is the first time this particular provision has been used, so it’s a case of first impression," Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said. "Secondly, it sets a precedent about how you define hostilities that’s going to go far beyond the Yemen issue. Thirdly, there’s the policy question about what’s happening in Yemen, both on the humanitarian side and the Iranian side.”
“Those are all elements that you have to consider," Menendez said.
A Republican critic of the measure, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a longtime proponent of congressional oversight of war, said it doesn't go far enough. He opposes a carve-out allowing U.S. missions against Al Qaeda to continue. The actual size of the U.S. presence is classified but there is a small contingent of military personnel on the ground to fight the terrorist organization.
“If you do that, the whole resolution, if it passed, might be moot because the president could simply argue, ‘Well, the action over there is against Al Qaeda.’ So they’ve defeated their whole purpose,” Paul said.
Congress has been wrangling with the executive branch over military incursions since Congress gave the president authorization to fight terrorism in 2001 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Trump administration, like the Bush and Obama administrations before it, is saying it doesn't need congressional approval for each new conflict involving terrorist organizations.
A second resolution being discussed in the Foreign Relations Committee, proposed by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Todd Young, R-Ind., is a pared-down alternative that expands the number of exemptions beyond just Al Qaeda. It also allows U.S. force against ISIS and Iranian “terrorist activities” in Yemen. Critics say it is too weak, while supporters say it has a far better chance of passing the Senate.
The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding resolution in November condemning the U.S.’s involvement in Yemen, but efforts to pass a stronger measure that would force the president’s hand have gone nowhere.
CORRECTION (March 19, 2018, 6:02 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article contained an incorrect estimate of the number of U.S. military personnel on the ground in Yemen to fight Al Qaeda. The U.S. government has not revealed how many service members are in Yemen, a figure that is classified.