Can Congress stop Trump’s support for the Saudi war in Yemen?


During the 1992 presidential campaign, a Republican congressman urged President George H.W. Bush to attack his Democratic rival Bill Clinton for having taken a trip to Moscow in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. The congressman called Clinton a “nerdy little flower child peacenik demonstrating against his country,” a colorful but not inexact distillation of how many on the right saw the Arkansas governor.

Nobody is likely to similarly brand Rep. Abigail Spanberger a peacenik, at least not with any success. Having served for eight years in the Central Intelligence Agency, the congresswoman from Virginia has the kind of foreign policy experience that Democrats were once derided for lacking. And several of her first-term Democratic colleagues in the 116th Congress, including Max Rose of New York, Elaine Luria of Virginia and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, served in the armed forces.

Now, Spanberger and her peers — including some Republicans — are seeking to put their foreign policy expertise to use by moving to stop American support for Saudi Arabia’s bloody campaign in Yemen. With a raft of standalone resolutions and amendments, some of which are tied to the defense appropriations and authorization process now underway on Capitol Hill, they want to use what they see as their constitutional authority to halt the sale of $8.1 billion in U.S. weapons systems to the Saudis and other Gulf nations announced in late May. The Trump administration circumvented Congress in making the sale — 22 separate sales — by claiming emergency powers under the Arms Export Control Act.

Spanberger’s amendment is intended to stop the sale of offensive weapons known as precision guided munitions; other amendments working their way through Congress seek to stop all sales to the Saudis. One amendment would simply require the Pentagon to report on casualties of Yemeni civilians.

“I worked in national security,” Spanberger told Yahoo News, speaking in her office last month. “I am not soft on terrorists, or the Iranians, or the Chinese, or the Russians — or anything,” she said. “I am going to aggressively be in favor of options that keep this country safe.”

Like many of her colleagues in both parties, the 39-year-old from the Richmond, Va., suburbs is tired of the president using the fear of terrorism to justify military action that should receive congressional authority. She is not alone in that effort, which includes Rep. Ro Khanna, the progressive from Northern California, and Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian from Kentucky. Altogether, there have been 22 resolutions in the Senate, bringing both chambers and both parties into exceptionally rare accord.

“We’re not saying don’t sell arms to Saudi Arabia,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a former active duty Air Force officer (and current reservist) who has introduced his own legislation, meant to stop all weapons sales, as opposed to the more limited injunctions against offensive weapons favored by some of his colleagues. “Congress also agrees we should support our allies,” Lieu told Yahoo News. “There’s no indication that Congress doesn’t view Saudi Arabia as an ally.”

Lieu’s legislation is attached to the Pentagon appropriations bill that will arrive on Trump’s desk this summer (he also has amendments in the National Defense Authorization Act; the two complex bills fuse, in appropriately complex fashion, to form the legislative backbone of the U.S. military). Since Trump is certain to sign the military bills — no president has gone without funding and authorizing the armed forces for six decades — he would in effect be signing into law a measure to which he is opposed. It is not clear whether Trump could, or would, still invoke presidential emergency powers to push the arms sale through.

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