The Senate Finds Its Backbone

All Democrats and seven Republicans support a resolution to stop U.S. involvement in Yemen.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a resolution directing the president to end American participation in a foreign war—but not the one in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan.

The relevant conflict is in Yemen. Despite campaigning on an “America first” foreign policy, President Donald Trump has the U.S. military participating in a civil war there, supporting a Sunni-aligned coalition led by Saudi Arabia. A coalition bombing campaign has killed thousands of innocent civilians, while efforts to blockade the country’s ports have put millions at risk of starvation.

Fifty-four senators voted “to remove U.S. Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting Yemen within 30 days unless Congress authorizes a later withdrawal date, issues a declaration of war, or specifically authorizes the use of the Armed Forces.” All Democrats back the resolution, as do the Republicans Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Todd Young, Lisa Murkowski, Steve Daines, Jerry Moran, and Susan Collins.

The full roll call is here.

“Congress is one step closer to withdrawing U.S. forces from an unauthorized war,” Senator Bernie Sanders stated. “We are reasserting the constitutional authority of the U.S. Congress in terms of war-making.” The House is expected to approve the resolution soon, unlike the last time the Senate passed a bill of this sort, when then-Speaker Paul Ryan prevented it from coming up for a House vote.

Its language specifies that “prohibited activities include providing in-flight fueling for non-U.S. aircraft conducting missions as part of the conflict in Yemen,” but that “this joint resolution shall not affect any military operations directed at Al Qaeda.” In other words, it won’t deny the CIA its drone killings.

Defense News summarized the White House response:

The Yemen resolution “seeks to override the President’s determination as Commander in Chief,” the statement said, and “would harm bilateral relationships in the region.”

“By defining ‘hostilities’ to include defense cooperation such as aerial refueling,” the statement said, the Yemen resolution could “establish bad precedent for future legislation.”

Skeptics of executive power recognize that the Constitution vests Congress, not the commander in chief, with the prerogative to determine whether the U.S. military participates in a given foreign war. And we believe that legislative control over related decisions, such as whether to refuel warplanes for foreign countries as they carry out acts of war, sets a good precedent, not a bad one.

“The White House is threatening to veto the measure if it comes to the president’s desk,” Daniel Larison notes, “but Trump should be forced to own this policy and its consequences fully. Congress is sending the Saudi coalition and the Trump administration a clear message that America’s elected representatives do not consent to our involvement in this war and will never authorize it.”

If Trump vetoes the resolution, he will likely have to seek reelection against a Democratic rival who has taken a less interventionist stance in at least one conflict, in contrast to 2016, when he positioned himself as the anti-war candidate against a Democrat with a very hawkish record.

But for this resolution, voters in 2020 would be less clear on where Trump and his Democratic rivals stood on participation in this foreign war. By asserting itself in this matter, Congress is giving us a democracy in which voters are more informed about and politicians are more accountable for our foreign policy.