A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill are hoping to upend nearly half a century of American foreign policy by using the War Powers Act to end U.S. military support for the civil war in Yemen.
If the resolution that’s being introduced Wednesday passes both chambers of Congress — and its sponsors believe it will — it will reassert Congress’s constitutionally-mandated authority over declaration of war, and it could force President Donald Trump to veto the bill in order to continue U.S. support of Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
The bill may also limit the administration’s future actions in Venezuela, even as National Security Advisor John Bolton said this week that “all options are on the table,” including a military intervention to protect opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
“It’s a huge deal,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the legislation’s main House sponsor, said sitting in his Capitol Hill office and talking exclusively with VICE News. “At some point, we ought to learn our lesson that the first principle of foreign policy in the Middle East should be: Do no harm and take a step back in the military interventions.”
While Khanna is the lead sponsor in the House, it’s backed by a group of lawmakers of all stripes, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who previously clerked for Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito.
If the bill passes, it would mark the first time Congress has ever used the War Power Act of 1973 to curtail a president’s ability to deploy U.S. military assets abroad.
Those powers were widely expanded in the wake of 9/11 with the Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001, which authorized the president to deploy U.S. forces abroad to fight terrorism without seeking congressional approval. Since then, it has been liberally used to authorize U.S. military actions in Afghanistan, across Africa, and in Yemen.
Back in December, seven Republican senators joined Democrats in passing a War Powers Act resolution to put a stop to U.S. material support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s brutal civil war. The Senate also voted unanimously to hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia personally responsible for the killing and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey last Ocober, a powerful rebuke of Trump, who dismissed U.S. intelligence linking the crown prince to the killing.
Paul Ryan was House speaker back then, and he made sure the Senate’s legislation never saw the light of day in the House of Representatives. This time, Democrat Nancy Pelosi is speaker, and the legislation is expected to sail through the House with significant bipartisan support.
Sanders, one of the main sponsors, told VICE News that its chances of passing the Senate are even better than they were in December. “I think there’s no reason to believe that we’re not going to have the same support that we had last time, and maybe a little bit better,” he said.
In December, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried and failed to keep it off the floor. Sanders predicts this time he’ll fail again.
“He couldn’t block it last time, and I don’t think he’s going to be able to block it this time,” Sanders continued. “I think we’re going to get it on the floor, and I think we’re going to win it. I think the House is going to do it. It’s a major step forward.”
Though the bill maintains more Democratic support than Republican, it marks a slow change in American foreign policy as seen through the eyes of many members of Congress.
“Above and beyond the tragedy in Yemen, it means that the Congress is finally taking back the powers that the Constitution gave us. Those are powers that have been abdicated under Democratic and Republican presidents, so that in and of itself is enormously important,” Sanders said.
Lawmakers are particularly concerned about Bolton’s contention that “all options are on the table” when it comes to Venezuela.
“That’s just not true. Only Congress can declare war,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) told VICE News in the basement of the Capitol.
Lieu contends that Congress has only authorized two uses of military force. “One is to go after terrorists. The other is to do operations in Iraq. None of those apply to Venezuela, so that option is just not on the table for military troops,” Lieu said.
Since the waning days of the last Congress there hasn’t been much of a peep about Yemen, which proponents say is another casualty of the government shutdown that sucked the air out of Washington for more than a month. While Venezuela is the latest issue of concern, Congress wants to send a message that Khashoggi hasn’t been forgotten.
“It’s not the foreign policy spotlight of the day – that’s Venezuela, and I think that’s the issue,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told VICE News. “There’s still the interest and, I think, there will be an effort made by the Democrats, working with Republicans, to respond to the Saudis on this.”
“This place will be obsessing over Yemen soon enough. We’ll be back on it,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told VICE News. “It just wasn’t something we could get people to focus on during the shutdown.”
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, Jan 25, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)