WASHINGTON — Following a contentious administration briefing about the war in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Senate voted to advance a measure that would tie the hands of President Donald Trump's foreign policy as it relates to Saudi Arabia.
The procedural measure passed 63-37, a strong rebuke to the president's authority and a reversal for the Senate, which rejected the same measure just nine months ago when only 44 senators supported it.
The position of many senators changed after the president dismissed the intelligence community's assessment that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman likely ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen is also playing a role in senators' frustration with the ongoing war there in which the U.S. is supplying Saudi Arabia with weapons and support to fight the Houthi rebels.
The measure, pushed forward by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., would end U.S. involvement and military assistance to the war where more 85,000 children have died because of a war-induced famine in the country and millions of people on the brink of starvation, which UNICEF declared the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
An all-Senate briefing by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier on Wednesday about Yemen and Saudi Arabia did little to convince senators to oppose the measure and instead seemed to have only pushed members to support it."I was leaning toward supporting it and this briefing helped to get me there all the way," Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., said after leaving the briefing.
She and 18 other senators switched their votes from the last time the measure was voted on in March when it failed by six votes.
Anger was abundant on Capitol Hill because neither CIA Director Gina Haspel nor any representative from the CIA were present to brief the members. The CIA has the latest intelligence and assessment of Khashoggi's murder.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the briefing "inadequate," adding that he will not be a reliable Republican vote on any key legislation until the CIA briefs the members.
"The question for me is whether or not the CIA supports the conclusion with a high degree of confidence that the crown prince was complicit in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi," Graham said after the briefing. "I get Yemen. I understand the strategic relationship between us and Saudi Arabia, but I'm not going to blow past this. So if that briefing is not given soon it's going to be hard for me to vote for any spending bill."
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Haspel's absence "a cover-up."
"It's outrageous that the Senate can be stonewalled from hearing from the CIA director," Menendez said.CIA Press Secretary Timothy Barrett said Haspel didn't attend because the CIA already briefed the Intelligence Committee and Congressional leadership and "will continue to provide updates on this important matter to policymakers and Congress," adding that "the notion that anyone told Director Haspel not to attend today's briefing is false."
The administration is also downplaying any connection between bin Salman and Khashoggi's murder, a connection which the intelligence community, with "high confidence," has concluded exists.
Pompeo told reporters on Capitol Hill after he briefed senators that "there is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order of the crown prince to the order of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi."Pompeo also urged senators to vote against the Yemen resolution, saying the timing is bad because they are "on the cusp" of all parties coming to the table for a potential ceasefire.
The Senate will continue debate on the measure next week.