S.J.Res.54 Latest in a Chain of Congressional Action on Yemen

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced Senate Joint Resolution 54 on February 28, which, if passed, would require President Trump to remove all US personnel from their activities in support of the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen and halt US logistical support to coalition air raids--including in-flight refueling, intelligence sharing, and targeting assistance--that have consistently targeted civilian schools, markets, and homes. Furthermore, S.J.Res.54 reasserts Congress’ power to approve and oversee the president’s deployment of the armed forces, as mandated by the War Powers Resolution. This assertion is not only a welcome congressional effort, as multiple presidential administrations have failed to push for an end to the war in Yemen; S.J.Res.54 is also the latest manifestation of a positive upward trend in congressional engagement on ending US complicity in and perpetuation of Yemen’s catastrophe.

Though some Members of Congress have challenged US involvement since the intervention’s start, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), with support from Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), introduced the first piece of legislation to build significant momentum around ending US engagement in the ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen in September 2016. Senate Joint Resolution 39 attempted to curb the export of specific topline weapons and other US military equipment to Saudi Arabia, primarily by blocking the sale of 153 Abrams tanks. While the resolution did not pass, 27 senators did vote to bring it to the floor.

This effort was later echoed in the introduction of Senate Joint Resolution 42, again led by Senators Murphy and Paul. In contrast to S.J.Res.39, S.J.Res.42 specifically tried to block the transfer of precision guided munitions (PGMs) to Saudi Arabia, which human rights groups have directly connected to strikes on civilian targets. Similar to S.J.Res.39, S.J.Res.42 was ultimately unable to pass through the Senate; however, there was a significant increase in the number of senators that voted in support of the resolution. Forty-seven senators voted to bring S.J.Res.42 to the floor. The debates around the two resolutions signaled a recognition by the Senate that the Saudi-led coalition is not using these weapons to further US foreign policy objectives and peacebuilding initiatives. Yet despite this progress, neither of these resolutions addressed the significant US provision of logistical support to the coalition’s bombing campaign, which has arguably been just as lethal as the US weapons transfers.

Following these two Senate Resolutions, Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced House Concurrent Resolution 81 in September 2017. H.Con.Res.81 directly addressed the role that the US government is playing in the war by fueling the coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen. It directed the President to remove all US Armed Forces from missions related to Yemen, except those engaged in operations directed at Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and affiliated groups. In invoking Congress’ Article I, section 8 war powers to end the US role in exacerbating Yemen’s civil war, H.Con.Res.81 became the most consequential congressional action to date regarding the conflict. By directly exercising these rarely invoked constitutional war powers, Congress would have prevented US personnel from provisioning in-flight refueling, intelligence sharing, and targeting assistance to the Saudi-led coalition’s engagement in Yemen’s civil war. This resolution was stalled when House leadership arbitrarily stripped it of its privileged status in November 2017. It continues to attract support in the house, however, so far gaining 50 cosponsors.

In between these resolutions have come other less visible, but no less important, congressional initiatives aimed at curtailing the United States’ exacerbation of the war and humanitarian crisis. In March 2017, Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) led on a letter signed by 52 members of Congress urging Secretary of State Tillerson to push for the opening of Yemen’s Hudaydah port, partially shut down by blockade. A month, later, 55 representatives sent a letter to President Trump demanding that he consult Congress before deepening US involvement in the civil war. The annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) amendment process also yielded several Yemen-related initiatives. While a strong NDAA amendment proposed by Representative Warren Davidson (R-OH) to prohibit funding for US military missions in Yemen unrelated to the 2001 AUMF did not make it into the final act, two reporting requirements proposed by Rep. Lieu, which require the US to publicly detail its military activities in Yemen and to propose a diplomatic strategy for the United States in Yemen, did, and are now awaiting response from the administration.

Now S.J.Res.54, the Senate counterpart to H.Con.Res.81, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), and Senator Murphy, is up for debate and vote. Similar to the House resolution, S.J.Res.54 aims to halt US logistical support for coalition air raids and remove all US personnel from the conflict. This resolution additionally reaffirms congressional authority to oversee and approve the president’s deployment of armed forces in support and advise missions to foreign militaries, as mandated by Section 8(c) of the War Powers Resolution. This authority is more important than ever, as the Trump Administration continues to offer a blank check of support to the coalition, even as its campaign is the leading cause of civilian casualties in Yemen, per the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It is critical that this latest effort pass, and that this war powers debate, and potentially H.Con.Res.81, be taken up again in the House. S.J.Res.54 marks the highest point yet of a positive upward trend in congressional engagement on Yemen, and it is actionable legislation that, if passed in both chambers, can immediately start protecting civilian lives in Yemen.