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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

GOP-led Senate's Saudi defiance shows Trump's lack of Capitol command

Resolutions taking sides against the Saudi-led coalition are symbolic, but lawmakers' dismissal of the administration's position hints of political weakness for the president.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is seen Tuesday

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is seen Tuesday at the Capitol. Photo Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

The death toll from the Yemen civil war and resulting famine reaches into the tens of thousands. Now, after years of strife, a majority of U.S. senators have gone on record against President Donald Trump's continued military support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that comprises one side in the fighting.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) publicly sided with the Trump administration. But the bipartisan measure advanced to a floor vote on Wednesday  by 60-39, with 11 Republicans in favor. And on Thursday, the resolution carried, 56-41. So did an amendment from Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) to ensure midair refueling between U.S. and Saudi jets — suspended last month — does not resume.

At this point the move remains symbolic, with House Republicans letting it lapse before transferring power to the newly elected Democratic majority next month. But the resolution stands out because members of the president's party in the upper house joined Democrats in defying him by invoking the War Powers Act of 1973.

With Trump vexed by law-enforcement probes, the willingness of lawmakers to move the measure forward signals his political weakness. 

The president also has drawn fire from within both parties for refusing to confront Saudi leadership over dissident Jamal Khashoggi's widely protested murder — the subject of a separate resolution on Thursday.

For the United States, the rationale for assisting the Saudis' air war in Yemen involves pushing back Iran, which supports the violent Houthi rebellion against the Yemeni government.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: "Iran is running rampant throughout the Middle East. America has an important ally in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

Last month Pompeo met with senators to argue against the Yemen resolution, warning it would "encourage the Houthis" and "would encourage the Iranians."

The warnings may be moot. On Thursday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that the warring sides agreed to an immediate cease-fire in the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, where much of the humanitarian aid for the suffering region must pass through.

Even before the latest debate, Trump and fellow Republicans in the legislative branch sounded discordant notes on foreign policy. Congress collectively has declined to take its cues from the president on Russia, NATO, tariffs and border fencing.

Under these conditions, it is hard to believe Trump would soon start commanding the agenda on Capitol Hill. It seems as if the legislature leads the executive when its members reach enough of their own consensus. This happened with a major tax bill, but such deep issues as health care, immigration and infrastructure remain legislatively adrift heading into the president's third year.

Even McConnell's statements against the resolution fell short of cheerleading for the administration's approach to Saudi Arabia. 

“If the Senate wants to pick a constitutional fight with the executive branch over war powers," he said Wednesday, "I would advise my colleagues to pick a better case. Their resolution is an inappropriate vehicle.”

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