Top Trump administration officials defend US involvement in Yemen, saying downgrading ties with Riyadh would be mistake.
Support is growing in the Senate for a resolution aimed at limiting US involvement in the war in Yemen.
The Senate voted 63-37 on Wednesday to advance the resolution, which, if passed, would end United States military support for the Saudi-led coalition in the war.
The advancement sets the stage for a possible final vote on the measure in coming days. The Trump administration has threatened to veto the resolution if it passes Congress.
Politicians are frustrated with the administration’s response to the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi and say the administration has not done enough to punish Saudi Arabia for its involvement.
Earlier on Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the Senate in a closed-door briefing that weakening US-Saudi ties over the killing of Khashoggi would be a mistake.
“The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on. But degrading US-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the US and its allies,” Pompeo wrote in a blog post shortly before Wednesday’s briefing for US senators.
Several senators, speaking to reporters after the briefing, said they were not satisfied with the administration’s stance on its support for Saudi Arabia in the war on Yemen, and called for Prince Mohammed to be held accountable for Khashoggi’s death.
Some who had opposed the Yemen resolution in an earlier vote now support it, including Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who said on Wednesday that “it’s time to send Saudi Arabia a message both on its violation of human rights and the incredible humanitarian catastrophe it’s creating.”
Pompeo called the vote “poorly timed” as diplomatic efforts to end the conflict were under way.
But Senator Bernie Sanders, who is sponsoring the bill, said the time to end the US involvement in the war is now.
“We have already seen 85,000 children starved to death, the UN tells us that millions of people are facing starvation, 10,000 new cholera cases are developing each week because there is no clean drinking water in the country,” Sanders said following the briefing.
“All of that was caused by the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen three years ago, led by a despotic, dishonest dictatorship.”
The war in Yemen began in September 2014, when Houthi rebels took control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa and proceeded to push southwards towards the country’s second-biggest city, Aden.
In response, a Saudi-UAE military coalition, backed by the US, intervened in 2015 with a massive air campaign aimed at reinstalling the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
According to aid groups, tens of thousands of people have been killed in the war.
Republican Mike Lee, who is a co-sponsor of the Yemen resolution, criticised both former President Barack Obama for getting the US involved in the war and current President Donald Trump for continuing it.
“This is a war of bipartisan creation. A Democratic president has gotten us involved in a civil war in Yemen. We now have a Republican president, and that war has continued,” Lee said.
Lee added the Senate would try to invoke the War Powers Act, which is a law that states the president cannot get the US involved in a war without approval from Congress.
Republican Senator Bob Corker also voiced his support for the resolution, saying that the US needs to send a message to Saudi Arabia with regards to the war in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a permanent US resident and contributor to the Washington Post.
After offering contradictory statements, Saudi Arabia admitted last month that Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul on October 2 and his body was dismembered. The kingdom has repeatedly said Prince Mohammed had no knowledge of the killing, which Turkey said was ordered at the highest level of Saudi leadership.
Corker said that he prefers the executive branch send a message, but that so far it has failed to do so.
“We have watched innocent people being killed and we have seen people die of diseases they should not be dying of,” Corker said.
“We also have a crown prince that is out of control; A blockade of Qatar, the arrest of a prime minister of Lebanon, the killing of a journalist,” he added.
Several senators said they were disappointed that CIA Director Gina Haspel was not present during Wednesday’s briefing.
Trump has dismissed reports of a CIA assessment that Prince Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
On Wednesday, both Mattis and Pompeo said there is no direct evidence linking Prince Mohammed to the killing.
“We have no smoking gun the crown prince was involved, not the intelligence community or anyone else. There is no smoking gun,” Mattis told reporters.
But senators were unsatisfied, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, threatened to oppose key legislation until the Senate is briefed by the CIA on Khashoggi’s murder.