House votes to end U.S. role in Yemen conflict

April 4, 2019 GMT

The House voted Thursday to demand an end to the U.S. military role in Yemen’s ongoing civil war, in what backers said was a belated effort to reestablish Congress’s role in deciding where and when American forces are committed to battle.

The 247-175 vote flexes Congress’s power under the 1973 War Powers Resolution to order the president to withdraw from hostilities that Capitol Hill has not given approval to. For good measure, it was also seen as a slap at Saudi Arabia, which is leading the coalition that the U.S. is assisting, but which has fallen out of favor with Congress after its government was implicated in the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi newspaper editor who wrote a column for The Washington Post.

Under the terms of the vote, President Trump is directed to remove U.S. forces from “hostilities” in Yemen, other than attempts to target remaining al Qaeda operations.

What that means in reality, though, is heatedly debated.

The White House, which has promised to veto the resolution, says it’s already stopped refueling assistance to the Saudi coalition, and at this point is only providing logistics and intelligence support, in an effort to limit collateral civilian casualties from Saudi strikes.

Those continuing activities don’t constitute “hostilities,” the White House says, but are instead authorized by licenses issued under the Arms Export Control Act and other powers of the Pentagon and the president.

“Because the president has directed United States forces to support the Saudi-led coalition under his constitutional powers, the joint resolution would raise serious constitutional concerns to the extent it seeks to override the president’s determination as commander in chief,” the White House said.

The resolution, written by Sen. Bernard Sanders, passed the Senate last month on a 54-46 vote. That, and Thursday’s House vote, both fell well short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override Mr. Trump’s expected veto.

A ciivil war has been raging for four years in Yemen, a nation of nearly 30 million people at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. A Saudi-backed government is battling the Houthi rebel movement, backed by Iran. Then-President Obama committed the U.S. to helping the Saudi coalition.

Democrats said it was time to end the involvement and insisted their move wasn’t a slap at Mr. Trump.

“No blank checks anymore. No blank checks to say the administrations can run wars without the approval of Congress,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I would be doing this no matter who the president of the United States is.”

Mr. Engel brushed aside GOP complaints that the resolution was a capitulation to Iran. He said Iran feeds off of the missteps by the Saudi coalition, and U.S. assistance

“The longer this conflict rages, the better it is for Iran,” Mr. Engel said.

But Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on Mr. Engel’s committee, said Thursday’s vote would be seen as a win for Iran and its forces in Yemen. He said when the House held a similar debate earlier this year, Iran’s allies touted fading U.S. support as a victory for their side.

Mr. McCaul also said the vote would weaken the position of a U.N. special envoy working to win a peace agreement in Yemen.

Republicans tried to attach to the legislation a statement opposing the anti-Israel “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement, seeking to force Democrats into a tricky situation.

If they voted for the anti-BDS language it would make the legislation different than the Senate’s bill, and wouldn’t have been able to go straight to Mr. Trump’s desk. But voting against the anti-BDS bill could be seen as a vote against Israel.

In the end, Democrats rallied to defeat the pro-Israel measure, with only a handful breaking ranks to join the GOP.

“This is about politics. This is about trying to drive a wedge into this caucus where it does not belong,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, Florida Democrat.