US Senate advances measure to cut support for Saudi forces in Yemen

Bipartisan vote in wake of Khashoggi killing defies stance held by Trump administration

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, speaks to members of the media following a briefing on the murder of US-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Wednesday. Photograph: Al Drago/Bloomberg

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, speaks to members of the media following a briefing on the murder of US-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Wednesday. Photograph: Al Drago/Bloomberg


US politicians have sent a strong signal that they want to punish Saudi Arabia for its role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The country’s Senate voted 63-37 to move forward with legislation calling for an end to US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

The bipartisan vote on Wednesday was a rebuke not only to Saudi Arabia but also to US president Donald Trump’s administration, which has made clear it does not want to torpedo the long-standing US relationship with Riyadh over the killing.

Secretary of state Mike Pompeo and secretary of defence James Mattis both visited the Senate on Capitol Hill to urgently lobby against the resolution, which would call for an end to US military assistance for the conflict that human rights advocates say is wreaking havoc on Yemen and subjecting civilians to indiscriminate bombing.

The vote showed a significant number of Republicans were willing to break with Mr Trump to express their deep dissatisfaction with Saudi Arabia and with the US response to Mr Khashoggi’s brutal killing in Turkey last month.

US intelligence officials have concluded that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, must have at least known of the plot, but Mr Trump has equivocated over who was to blame.

Mr Khashoggi, who lived in the US and wrote for the Washington Post, was publicly critical of the Saudi crown prince.

He was killed in what US officials have described as an elaborate plot at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which he had visited for marriage paperwork.

Echoing Mr Trump’s public comments on the killing, Mr Pompeo said after Wednesday’s briefing with senators that there was “no direct reporting” connecting the crown prince to the murder, and Mr Mattis said there was “no smoking gun” making the connection.

Mr Pompeo argued that the war in Yemen would be “a hell of a lot worse” if the United States were not involved.

Wednesday’s procedural vote sets up a debate on the resolution next week. It would be largely a symbolic move, however, as House Republican leaders have given no indication they would take up the war powers measure before the end of the year — the end of the current Congress.

Several senators said they were angry about the absence of CIA director Gina Haspel from the pre-vote briefing.

Strongly allied

New Jersey senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, speculated that Ms Haspel did not attend because she “would have said with a high degree of confidence that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi”.

And Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is often strongly allied with Mr Trump, voted to move forward with the resolution and said he would insist on a briefing from Ms Haspel.

He even threatened to withhold his vote on key measures if that did not happen and declared: “I’m not going to blow past this.”

CIA press secretary Timothy Barrett said that no-one kept Ms Haspel away from the briefing.

He said the CIA had already briefed the Senate intelligence committee and Senate leaders and “will continue to provide updates on this important matter to policymakers and Congress”.

In another explanation, a White House official said Ms Haspel decided not to participate in part because of frustration with politicians leaking classified intelligence from such settings.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

The procedural vote received more Republican support than had been expected after the resolution, sponsored by Republican senator Mike Lee of Utah and Independent senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, fell six votes short of passage earlier this year.

Foreign relations committee chairman Bob Corker, a Republican senator from Tennessee, said in the past he had “laid in the railroad tracks to keep us from doing things that I believe are against our national interest as it relates to Saudi Arabia”.

But he said he believes the Senate should “figure out some way for us to send the appropriate message to Saudi Arabia that appropriately displays American values and American national interests”.

He said the crown prince “owns this death. He owns it”.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican senator from Kentucky, voted against moving ahead with the resolution but said a day earlier that “some kind of response” was needed from the US for the Saudis’ role in Mr Khashoggi’s death.

On Tuesday, he said that “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”.–AP