Late Wednesday afternoon, the House of Representatives made history when it voted to invoke the War Powers Resolution to end the US’s illegal participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The vote was 248-177.
Although the victory was decisive, it would not have happened without a tireless grassroots mobilization that ultimately made this moment possible. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who introduced yesterday’s War Powers Resolution, introduced similar resolutions on several prior occasions during the last session. War Powers Resolutions are privileged meaning their sponsors can bypass both the leadership and the committees to bring them to a floor for a vote. During the previous session, the House Republican leadership did everything it could to make sure this bipartisan resolution did not receive a vote.
When Khanna first introduced a Yemen War Powers Resolution in 2017, there were murmurings that the House Republican leadership would try to block it from coming to the floor by arguing that US military involvement did not constitute hostilities under the War Powers Act. Thus, the reasoning went, it was not a privileged war powers resolution. While the leadership did not pull this stunt, it was reported that then Democratic House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) discouraged Democrats from supporting the resolution (Hoyer, along with all present Democrats, voted for the Yemen War Powers resolution yesterday). Eventually, Khana agreed to pull this resolution in favor of a non-binding resolution declaring that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force did not authorize US participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. It passed overwhelmingly.
There was also a parallel effort to invoke the War Powers Resolution in the Senate. In March 2018, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Christ Murphy (D-CT), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced a war powers resolution. As the resolution was privileged, its sponsors were able to bring it to the floor. The Senate voted to table it (meaning they would not even debate, nonetheless vote on it) 55-44. While disappointing, the margin of defeat was far narrower than many had expected.
The Saudi-led war in Yemen continued to garner outrage as the Saudis committed high profile atrocities, such as bombing a school bus and killing 40 children. The Saudi’s brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its transparent cover up also fractured the special relationship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the US. With a new desire to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, the effort to end the war in Yemen gained new urgency. The Senate Yemen War Powers Resolution was reintroduced. In a historic first, in December it passed the Senate 56-41.
The House would not follow suit. The Republican leadership would engage in a number of dirty tricks to make sure that they would not vote on any Yemen War Powers Resolutions. In November, 2018 the House Republicans had used a rules vote about removing wolves from the endangered species act to strip a Yemen War Powers Resolution of its privileged status. In December, during a procedural vote on a farm bill, House Republicans, aided and abetted by five Democrats, stripped all War Powers Resolutions on Yemen of privileged status for the reminder of the legislative session. Without a privileged status, any vote on the Yemen War Powers Resolution passed by the Senate depended on the cooperation of the leadership. As a result, the House never took up the cause.
But a new Democratic majority in Congress meant new leadership, which allowed yesterday’s vote to happen. While yesterday was a historic victory, the resolution was far from perfect. As many critics have pointed out, it only covers US-participation in the Saudi led war in Yemen, not the full range of illegal US military action in Yemen. And the House voted for an amendment to the resolution that would continue to allow intelligence sharing with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Nonetheless, there is great cause to celebrate. Thanks to a remarkable grassroots campaign, something that a year ago seemed impossible passed overwhelmingly. And if the Senate follows suit, this would be a major and long overdue step towards Congress reclaiming its constitutional war powers.