Politics

Senate Opts Against Limiting Trump’s War Powers

Measure to cease most military actions in Yemen shot down

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, here at a rally at the Capitol last year, pushed a resolution to end most U.S. military operations in Yemen. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Amid a whirlwind day of White House news, President Donald Trump on Tuesday retained the expanded war powers he inherited from his post-9/11 predecessors, as the Senate shot down a measure that would have ordered him to cease most U.S. military operations in Yemen.

Trump scored a victory on behalf of the executive branch’s ability to launch and sustain military operations in new countries without first getting authorization from Congress. Amid pressure from Republican leaders, the White House and the Pentagon, the chamber killed a resolution, 55-44, offered by a bipartisan group of senators that would have required Trump to cease all U.S. military action against groups other than al-Qaida in Yemen.

Just before the vote started, a White House official said Trump “strongly opposes” the measure and its underlying premise. That put a president who campaigned against what he viewed as the Middle East and South Asian military follies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama squarely in their collective camp on post-9/11 presidential war powers.

To that end, Roll Call reported first in September that Trump and his national security and legal aides have concluded — just as Bush and Obama did before him — that he possesses all the legal authority he needs to carry out America’s ongoing war on Islamist extremist groups. 

The timing of the vote coincided with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to the White House for talks with Trump and his national security team. Saudi Arabia leads a military coalition that has waged a deadly intervention in Yemen since 2015. The crown prince’s visit raised the profile of the Senate vote, and allowed Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hand its sponsors a very public defeat.

High stakes

“Withdrawing U.S. support would increase, not decrease, the risk of civilian casualties and it would signal that we’re not serious about containing Iran,” McConnell said on the floor Tuesday.

The Kentucky Republican urged those who want to stop American missions inside Yemen to turn instead to “other legislative tools available,” saying “they could try to restrict funds through the appropriations process. They could amend Arms Control Export Act or the licensing of defense services or the National Defense Authorization Act.”

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The White House and Pentagon joined McConnell in opposing the resolution, pushed by Utah Republican Mike Lee, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders and Connecticut Democrat Christopher S. Murphy. So did a few key security-minded Democrats.

Most members ultimately sided with McConnell and the leaders of the committee with jurisdiction over the matter.

Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez said passing the measure would have amounted to a “failure of leadership” and signaled to allies around the globe that the United States is no longer dependable. The New Jersey Democrat called on his colleagues to seek a more “practical” approach, such as helping craft a war-authorization measure specific to the Yemen conflict within his panel.

Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who offered the motion to table the resolution, took to the floor and urged his colleagues to send the matter “back to committee with the commitment that we plan to bring forth legislation to actually deal appropriately with many of the issues relative to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran and ourselves.”

The Tennessee Republican contended that “no one is shying away from the debate — we just hope to table this and move it back and deal with it in the orderly, appropriate way.”

Limited action

To that end, however, the Senate has acted on very little policy legislation — even bills approved out of committee with bipartisan support — in recent years.

One reason the measure’s sponsors are so concerned about U.S. support for the Saudi operation inside Yemen: 10,000 civilians are estimated to have died in that yearslong conflict, with another 40,000 suffering injuries, according to the United Nations. But Trump did not bring up those civilian deaths or injuries during his Tuesday talks with Crown Prince Mohammed, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

The floor debate featured a potential preview of the 2020 presidential campaign, with Sanders, among the early Democratic contenders, leading the debate time for the resolution’s advocates.

“What we are saying is, ‘If Congress wants to go to war in Yemen or any place else, vote to go to war,’” he said. “That is your constitutional responsibility. Stop abdicating that responsibility to a president.” 

From Afghanistan to Syria to Somalia to other African countries to Lebanon to Yemen, Bush, then Obama, and now Trump have used a 2001 authorization for the use of military force passed a few days after the 9/11 attacks to justify their military actions. Numerous legal experts and lawmakers continue to dispute those assertions, but there has been no serious curtailing of the actions of the 43rd, 44th or 45th commanders in chief.

Lee warned on the floor that Trump has only continued a “gradual shift” of powers from the legislative to the executive branch. He cited the crafting of regulations, trade actions and war powers as examples.

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When a president acts on his own in those realms, it “means the Constitution means less,” the Utah Republican argued. “That’s why this resolution matters.”

Princely deals

A few hours before the vote, about a mile down a rain-soaked and chilly Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump met with Crown Prince Mohammed at the White House. One major topic that did come up during their talks: business deals, especially additional Saudi purchases of U.S. weapons.

“We understand each other. Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world,” Trump said during a lunch meeting with the crown prince 

Earlier in the Oval Office, the president displayed for journalists two large charts featuring images of and statistics about American-made weapons that have been sold to the Saudi kingdom.

The president did, however, have a message for Crown Prince Mohammed regarding the support previously offered by his family and government for violent extremist groups like al-Qaida.

“There will be zero tolerance for the funding of terrorism,” Trump said. But he did not elaborate on what he might do — if anything — should the U.S. government possess credible evidence of such backing.

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