White House pushes to derail Sanders measure cutting Saudi support

Reuters, file photo
The North Portico of the White House

The White House has mobilized to derail a Senate resolution that would end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, creating an unusual rift among Democratic allies and forcing the bill’s sponsor to pull the bill before a scheduled vote earlier this week.

The legislation, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would have ended some U.S. support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen, which has gone on for more than seven years. Forces from a Saudi-led coalition have bombed and killed hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians and blocked crucial ports, helping fuel a nationwide famine.

Similar resolutions passed the Senate in 2018 and 2019, during the Trump administration, with support of all Democratic senators. In 2019, the measure won the support of both chambers of Congress, but not enough to override a veto by President Donald Trump.

Now those efforts have been renewed. President Joe Biden’s White House also opposes the measure, putting the president in the unusual position of standing against an effort to punish a Saudi regime that has been anything but friendly to him.

But Biden aides say the president is opposing the resolution for different reasons than Trump did. The current version of Sanders’s measure differs from the previous versions, particularly in defining intelligence-sharing and support operations as “hostilities.” That could have dire consequences for U.S. operations globally, some congressional aides say, including in such hot spots as Ukraine.

“It really has made us nervous,” said one senior Democratic aide, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The changes “could have real ramifications for our support for Ukraine right now, or our support for Israel,” the aide said. “This is the first time that the Congress is being asked to vote on defining hostility as intelligence-sharing, and it’s dangerous.”

The White House is concerned enough that it distributed talking points to senators ahead of a scheduled vote Tuesday night, arguing that the resolution would endanger a fragile pause in the hostilities between the Saudi-led faction in Yemen and the country’s Houthi rebels. The talking points acknowledged that senators might be reluctant to switch their positions after taking a forceful stance in favor of the resolution just three years ago.

“We know that it is a difficult decision to change a vote, but the circumstances are fundamentally different than they were in 2019, and a vote would undermine the possibility that we can finally bring an end to this war and the humanitarian suffering of the people of Yemen,” the documents said. “If this resolution were presented to the President, his staff will recommend the President veto it. The stakes are too high.”

The White House cited a nine-month halt in fighting and pointed to ongoing U.S. diplomacy that it said was not in place three years ago. “The bottom line is that this resolution is unnecessary and would greatly complicate the intense and ongoing diplomacy to truly bring an end to the conflict,” the talking points said.

Sanders, while nominally an independent, is allied with the Democratic Party, and he had expressed confidence in recent days that the measure would secure enough votes to pass – based, perhaps, on the support for the previous Yemen war powers resolutions.

Some proponents of the legislation pushed back on the administration talking points. “The White House is touting the lack of recent Saudi airstrikes, but their opposition to Bernie’s bill shows that they remain open to supporting a Saudi escalation,” said Erik Sperling, executive director of the advocacy organization Just Foreign Policy and a former congressional staffer who has worked on Yemen policy since 2015.

“The best way to support Yemen’s truce is to guarantee that the era of Saudi airstrikes is over,” Sperling said.

In 2019, seven Republicans joined all Senate Democrats in backing the measure – albeit with exemptions for intelligence-sharing and protections for military cooperation with Israel, which are omitted from the current resolution. In 2018, when the Senate passed a more vaguely worded resolution, seven Republicans also joined Democrats to back the measure.

The current Saudi regime, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is viewed with distaste and even disgust by many in Congress, given its record of human rights violations that include the murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In an effort to improve relations, Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July and was criticized in many quarters for giving Mohammed a fist bump – only to have a Saudi-led coalition announce a few months later it was slashing oil production, in a move potentially damaging to the U.S. economy as well as Biden’s political prospects.

Sanders, who caught Democrats and the White House off-guard when he announced last week he would reintroduce the measure, said he is now in talks with the administration on a compromise, though it remains unclear what that would look like. Aides and others involved in the legislative push say it is uncertain whether the outcome will be simply a delay in the vote, a diluted version of the war powers resolution, or an agreement to pull down the effort entirely while Biden officials try to forge a long-term peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

“Let me be clear. If we do not reach agreement, I will, along with my colleagues, bring this resolution back for a vote in the near future and do everything possible to end this horrific conflict,” Sanders said in withdrawing his resolution Tuesday.

Sanders introduced the measure in July, along with Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Why are we supporting a corrupt theocracy that brutalizes its own people, in a war that is best known for causing immense suffering and death among impoverished, defenseless civilians?” Leahy said at the time.

Other key Democrats, including Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a close ally of Biden and a longtime champion of efforts to end the bloodshed in Yemen, had expressed support for the measure ahead of the vote.

“The Saudis have shown more willingness than in the past to end the war, and right now, the Houthis are the biggest obstacle. But the Saudi interest in de-escalation comes and goes,” Murphy wrote in a tweet Tuesday.

“I just don’t think the US should play any role in the war any longer,” Murphy wrote in a separate tweet several hours later.

But even supporters of Sanders’s resolution acknowledged that the vote was not as cut-and-dry as it was in 2019. Some expressed frustration at both the White House and Sanders for complicating an already difficult situation.

One Democratic congressional aide, whose boss supported the motion and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said there was frustration at Sanders for bringing up the resolution when the vote is tougher for some Democrats than it was three years ago.

The aide added that many Democrats felt Trump had been overly friendly to Saudi Arabia and wrote the kingdom “blank checks” without any effort to end the war, and Congress was pushing Trump to be more active in negotiations. In contrast, Biden has been far more proactive in trying to bring the conflict to a close, Democrats argued.

The White House itself is pointing to a lull in the fighting in Yemen, crediting that relative calm to its own “robust diplomatic efforts,” according to the talking points. Some advocates of the war powers resolution said continued pressure from Congress also played a key role in forcing Saudi Arabia to pull back on airstrikes.

“The port and airport have opened, with food and fuel flowing, and there’s rarely a shot fired. The Saudis have conducted no airstrikes at all over the past nine months,” the talking points said, while emphasizing that the Biden administration had “halted ALL sales of offensive munitions” to Saudi Arabia.

But few diplomats are confident the hostilities are definitively over. And the dispute over the resolution comes at a time of heightened scrutiny surrounding the Biden administration’s relations with the Saudi government.

In recent weeks, the Biden administration has taken heat for attempting to reset relations with Saudi Arabia, which wields significant influence in international markets thanks to its copious petroleum reserves at a time when oil and gas markets have been roiled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Biden’s visit to Riyadh this summer broke his campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are.” And when OPEC Plus, a Saudi-led coalition, announced weeks ahead of the midterm elections that it would cut oil production, some in Biden’s circle saw it as a personal shot at the president.

Biden promised consequences for the move, but those have yet to materialize.

The tenuous situation was punctuated further in recent days by the Biden administration’s decision to grant Mohammed immunity in Khashoggi’s murder, prompting a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit against him, as well. The crown prince was condemned by both a U.S. intelligence report and the U.S. Senate as responsible for the 2018 murder, which took place in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.

But opponents of the Yemen resolution said it was important not to turn it into a referendum on Saudi Arabia.

“The way the administration has gone about expressing its opposition to the resolution has been firmly placed in the context of Yemen policy and the impact on Yemen,” a second senior Democratic aide said.

The aide added that Democrats who oppose the resolution will be watching to make sure the White House lives up to its commitments regarding the Yemen war. Lawmakers, the aide said, will be “measuring the actions of the administration now, both in terms of what they’ve done to withdraw support for Saudi Arabia . . . and also what they’ve done to double down on diplomacy.”