WASHINGTON - The Senate cast two historic votes Thursday to end U.S. participation in the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen and condemn the Saudi crown prince as responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, delivering clear political rebukes of President Donald Trump's continued embrace of the kingdom.
The unanimous vote to hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for Khashoggi’s murder reflects the extent to which senators of both parties have grown tired of Trump’s continued defense of Mohammed’s denials. It also puts significant pressure on leaders in the House - where the president’s Saudi policy is a much more partisan issue - to allow members to cast a similar vote condemning the crown prince before the end of the year.
Regardless, the two Senate votes Thursday set the stage for broader strategic debates about Saudi policy when Congress regroups next year.
Just before the Senate voted to condemn Mohammed over Khashoggi's killing, senators voted 56-to-41 vote to end U.S. participation in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen by invoking the War Powers Resolution - the first time a chamber of Congress has done so.
More importantly, the 56-vote majority - a figure that includes seven Republicans - suggests that Saudi critics will still have a majority next year to challenge Trump on Saudi policy. Republicans and Democrats have said they plan to pursue sanctions against Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi's murder, to stop the transfer of nondefensive weapons until Saudi forces withdraw from Yemen, and other measures to restrain a crown prince whom many lawmakers see as out of control.
"Today we tell the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia that we will not be part of their military adventurism," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who co-sponsored the Yemen resolution with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. "Today, for the first time, we are going to go forward . . . and tell the president of the United States, and any president . . . that the constitutional responsibility of making war rests in the United States Congress, not the White House."
The votes came just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis briefed House lawmakers behind closed doors - a meeting from which Republicans and Democrats emerge durging very different responses to Saudi Arabia and its crown prince.
A recent CIA assessment found that Mohammed was probably responsible for the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
"They have to be held responsible," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said after the briefing, referring to Mohammed and Saudi King Salman.
But there remain Republicans in the House who defend the crown prince - and those who think that even if he should be called out for his involvement in Khashoggi's death, the punishment should stop there.
"We recognize killing journalists is absolutely evil and despicable, but to completely realign our interests in the Middle East as a result of this, when for instance the Russians kill journalists . . . Turkey imprisons journalists?" Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said. "It's not a sinless world out there."
That stands in sharp contrast to the Senate, where several Republicans have been encouraging a broad response to Saudi Arabia over not just Khashoggi's killing and the Yemen war, but the kingdom's blockade in Qatar, its recent detainment of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a slate of human rights abuses they say have compromised the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
Trump has refused to condemn Mohammed for the killing of Khashoggi, a Saudi national. Pompeo has echoed Trump's stance in public interviews and behind closed doors, lawmakers said.
"All we heard today was more disgraceful ducking and dodging by the secretary," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, who supports bringing up a War Powers resolution in the House to cut off U.S. support for the Saudis' Yemen war effort. On Wednesday, the House narrowly voted to block rank-and-file members from demanding a floor vote on any such Yemen resolution, after leaders slipped in a rule change to do so into an unrelated agricultural bill.
House leaders also met with CIA Director Gina Haspel on Wednesday to hear the details of Khashoggi's slaying. But they emerged offering few details about the briefing - or about what step House Democrats would take, once they assume the majority in January, to pursue more punitive measures against Saudi Arabia, beyond holding hearings.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are making plans to capitalize on the Yemen resolution vote with further measures next year - including sanctions on Mohammed and the other Saudis implicated in Khashoggi's killing, and an order to halt all nondefensive weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia until hostilities in Yemen cease.
“The current relationship with Saudi Arabia is not working for America,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday, in comments to reporters about what next steps senators planned to take to address Saudi policy. “I’m never going to let this go until things change in Saudi Arabia.”