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Trump's Yemen veto won't stop Congress from trying to punish Saudi Arabia

Congressional rage over the war in Yemen and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi isn't going away.

by Matt Laslo
Apr 17 2019, 6:27pm

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WASHINGTON — President Trump vetoed a bipartisan resolution to cut off U.S. military aid to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war, which has killed an estimated 85,000 children due to famine, so lawmakers are exploring other means, including cutting off some arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

This was the first time lawmakers on Capitol Hill have sent a president legislation under the War Powers Act to end U.S. involvement in a conflict abroad, and it marks only the second veto of Trump’s presidency. While he argued he doesn’t want U.S. forces involved in the conflict indefinitely, Trump told lawmakers the resolution would have set a bad precedent.

“This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future,” reads part of the president’s veto message.

READ: The Trump war in Yemen is bringing Trump allies and progressives together

Trump’s opponents in Congress don’t have the votes to override his veto, but they hope the historic nature of their action will send a strong signal to Saudi leaders.

“Presidents come and go, but what defines stable partners and alliances of the Unites States is deep-rooted, broad support in Congress,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “This should be a wake-up call for them that they lost that support for the first time in recent history.”

“This should be a wake-up call for them”

But short of shaming Saudi Arabia, Congress is hatching other plans to punish the country, not only for the war in Yemen but also for the extrajudicial assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October, which the U.S. intelligence community believes was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The group, which includes members with diverse political views — Khanna and other progressives, libertarians like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Trump allies Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.)— is beginning to discuss their options, and proposals are already floating around Capitol Hill.

One bipartisan effort, led by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, would cut off some U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia while also ending American refueling missions over the war-torn nation.

READ: The Senate just voted to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen

With Democrats in control of the House, lawmakers are also looking to use Congress’ power of the pursestrings to cut off military spending on the conflict. But more immediately, lawmakers are calling for Congress to sanction the crown prince personally for his role in the Khashoggi killing.

In December the Senate passed a resolution that dubbed Prince Mohammed “responsible” for the killing. The White House is required by law to send Congress an assessment of the killing so lawmakers know who to sanction. The administration has so far refused, which has some lawmakers demanding that Congress go around the White House.

“They remain totally out of compliance with the law, but we’re not holding them accountable. I think we could pass our own sanctions legislation on the Saudi regime,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told VICE News at the Capitol last week before Congress recessed for two weeks. “But time is running short.”

With the Senate is still controlled by Republicans, Democrats are getting increasingly frustrated that efforts to cut off arms sales or pass sanctions on top Saudi leaders are being rebuffed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Foreign Relations Chair James Risch of Idaho.

“I am disappointed,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told VICE News ahead of the expected veto. “There’s bills that are around here. We should be considering the legislation.”

McConnell and Risch did not return VICE News’ requests for comment. But the frustration with what’s largely viewed as their feet dragging on the administration’s behalf is growing.

“There’s been talk about giving the administration some time. I think the administration’s had enough time,” Cardin said.

READ: Congress just voted to end the U.S. support for the war in Yemen

In the veto message, Trump did note that “great nations do not fight endless wars” before arguing that the Yemen conflict requires a “negotiated settlement.” That’s not good enough for many members of Congress, especially Democrats who argue this issue isn’t going away.

Khanna’s hoping the administration notices the bipartisan frustration that’s simmering in Congress and uses the War Powers Act vote as leverage to at least compel the Saudis to end the blockades at ports of entry that are keeping international aid, including food and medicine, from getting to millions of civilians on the brink of starvation.

“The Saudis, I think, would be very open to that kind of message, or take it very seriously,” Khanna said, adding, “and I would hope the administration would deliver it.”

Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the Oval Office of the White House April 11, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)