The Senate leveled up one of its harshest rebukes to date of President Trump’s foreign policy on Wednesday evening, voting overwhelmingly to advance a resolution that would halt American support for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.
Moving just hours after Mr. Trump had dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis to lobby against the measure, the Senate voted 63-37 to force a bill on the resolution out of committee, effectively teeing it up for floor action next week. Fourteen Republicans joined the minority Democrats in defying the White House’s argument that the measure could damage relations with a critical ally at a highly sensitive time.
While only procedural, the Senate vote sets the stage for a public and likely protracted debate between the Republican-led Senate and White House over wider Middle East strategy, at a moment when lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to punish the Saudi government and de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for their suspected role in the killing of dissident U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last month.
Many lawmakers expressed sharp disappointment Wednesday that officials from the intelligence community, including CIA Director Gina Haspel, were not present at the closed-door Pompeo-Mattis briefing. Ms. Haspel traveled to Turkey shortly after Mr. Khashoggi’s death to go over evidence compiled by Ankara.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, even said he was prepared to hold up other key legislative business until lawmakers were given a full briefing from the intelligence community. Mr. Graham was one of a number of senators who changed their vote in the wake of the Khashoggi affair, having voted with the majority in a 55-44 vote against a similar resolution on Yemen in March.
Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Mattis argued on a trip to the Hill just before the vote that barring U.S. logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen would do “immense damage” to U.S. interests in the region, upset sensitive diplomatic talks just getting underway and leave rival Iran in a stronger position across the Middle East.
The two used the briefing to warn that a pullback of U.S. weapons, air and intelligence support for the Saudis would also do nothing to alleviate a spiraling humanitarian crises generated by the war. The situation would, said Mr. Pompeo, be “a hell of a lot worse” if the U.S. were not involved.
“All we would achieve from an American drawdown is a stronger Iran and a reinvigorated [Islamic State] and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” the secretary of state added, according to remarks circulated by his staff. “Try defending that outcome back home.”
Asked twice why Ms. Haspel was not included in the Senate briefing, Mr. Pompeo replied both times, “I was asked to be here, and I’m here.”
But the administration warnings could not assuage mounting fury in the Senate, where the Yemen resolution gained fresh converts in the wake of the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.
The administration leveled sanctions against 17 Saudi officials in the wake of the murder. But Mr. Trump has drawn criticism for not taking stronger action following reports that the CIA and the Turkish government have concluded the crown prince likely personally ordered Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
Mr. Trump has pushed aside such reports, saying it may never be known who was responsible for the killing. And, in a lengthy statement last week, the president offered a realpolitik defense citing Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance as a global oil supplier, as a check on Iran, as a potential guarantor of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and as a customer of U.S. defense companies.
Both Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Mattis insisted Wednesday that, in the Pentagon chief’s words, there was “no smoking gun” linking the crown prince to Khashoggi’s death.
Human rights concerns
Both Democratic and Republican critics, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, have suggested the administration is putting U.S. business interests in Saudi Arabia above basic human rights concerns. Many say the crown prince’s erratic foreign policy, including a damaging feud with Qatar, another key U.S. ally, and his decision to intervene militarily in Yemen, make Saudi Arabia an unreliable ally.
Mr. Corker said on the Senate floor that the Trump administration’s effort to convince senators that America must support a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen — a campaign the U.N. and private human rights groups say has fueled a massive humanitarian crisis — have fallen short.
“Secretary Mattis and Secretary Pompeo are two people that I work closely with and admire greatly, [but] I found their briefing today to be lacking,” Mr. Corker said. “I found that in substance, we’re not doing those things that we should be doing to appropriately balance our relationship with Saudi Arabia between our American interests and our American values.”
Many Democrats took an even sharper tone.
“We sent an important message today: that Congress will stand up to Saudi leadership when the Trump administration won’t,” Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, said after the vote. “We must cease support for this war — never authorized by Congress — that has taken thousands of lives and finally demand accountability for the Saudi regime’s continued human rights abuses.”
Lawmakers technically were voting to discharge from the Foreign Relations Committee a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Sens. Mike Lee, Utah Republican; Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent; and Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, to allow a floor debate and a vote to be held. Many said the debate was important even though President Trump was all but certain to veto the measure.
The bill invokes the War Powers Resolution, a 1973 law that gives Congress the power to direct the president to remove U.S. forces from overseas “hostilities” if there has been no clear declaration of war. The bill now faces another procedural vote next week, and then would be open to amendments ahead of final passage.
The legislation would still need approval of the House, an unlikely prospect given the short time left before 115th Congress adjourns for good next month.
Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Mattis said after their meeting with lawmakers that the resolution would be poorly timed as a cease-fire and diplomatic efforts to end the Yemen conflict are finally gaining traction. The defense secretary said a withdrawal U.S. military support now would endanger proposed negotiations, tentatively scheduled for early next month.
“[It] would be misguided on the eve of the promising initial negotiations,” he said. “It took us too long to get here.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday confirmed that the world body is close to creating conditions for the start of peace talks in Sweden between Yemen’s warring parties next month, but there is no agreement yet.
The U.N. chief told reporters this is “a very crucial moment in relation to Yemen.”
Despite the administration’s lobbying push, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that “some kind of response” was needed from the U.S. for the Saudis’ role in the gruesome death of Mr. Khashoggi, who had written opinion columns last year for The Washington Post critical of Crown Prince Mohammed’s aggressive plans to modernize Saudi society, diversity the economy and centralize power.
“What obviously happened, as basically certified by the CIA, is completely abhorrent to everything the United States holds dear and stands for in the world,” Mr. McConnell said.
• Carlo Munoz and Stephen Dinan contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.