The bipartisan bill from Sens. Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy will force the first-ever vote in the Senate to withdraw U.S. armed forces from an unauthorized war
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: And it goes without saying that every armed conflict that the United States of America is engaged in must be consistent with the Constitution of the United States and be lawful. Let us make no mistake about it: Article I Section 8 of the Constitution states in no uncertain terms that Congress shall have power to declare war. Congress shall have power to declare war. The founding fathers gave the power to declare war to Congress, the branch most accountable to the people. For far too long, Congress under Democratic and Republican administrations has abdicated its constitutional role in authorizing war.
The time is long overdue for Congress to reassert its constitutional authority and that is what Senators Lee, Senator Murphy and I are doing with this privilege resolution that we are introducing. Many Americans are unaware that the people of Yemen are suffering today in a devastating civil war with Saudi Arabia and their allies on one side and Houthi rebels on the other. In November of this year, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator said that Yemen was on the brink of “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades.” So far, at least 10,000 civilians have died and over 40,000 have been wounded in the war, and three million people have been displaced.
Many Americans are also not aware that US forces have been actively involved in support of the Saudis in this war providing intelligence and aerial refueling of planes whose bombs have killed thousands of people and made this crisis far worse. We believe that as Congress has not declared war or authorized military force in this conflict, the United States’ involvement in Yemen is unconstitutional and unauthorized. And US military support of the Saudi coalition must end. Without congressional authorization, our engagement in this war should be restricted to providing desperately needed humanitarian aid and diplomatic efforts to resolve it.
That is why today Senator Lee and I, and Senator Murphy are introducing a joint resolution pursuant to the 1973 war powers resolution calling for an end to US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. The war powers resolution defines the introduction of US armed forces to include “the assignment of members of such armed forces to command, coordinate, participate in the movement of or accompany the regular or irregular forces of any foreign country, of government, when such military forces are engaged or there exists an imminent threat that such forces will become engaged in hostilities.”
Assisting with, targeting intelligence and refueling airplanes as they bomb these targets clearly meets this definition. This is not a partisan issue. Support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen began under a Democratic president and has continued under a Republican president. Senator Lee is a conservative Republican, I am a progressive Independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
In November of last year, the House of Representatives with a strong bipartisan vote voted overwhelmingly for a non-binding resolution stating that US involvement in the Yemen civil war is unauthorized. Only 30 members of the House voted against that resolution and that is what we are saying today. We are in agreement with the vast majority of the Democrats and Republicans in the House.
Here is the bottom line. If the president or members of Congress believe that support for this war is in the US interest, and that we should be involved in it, then let them come before Congress, let them make their case and let the Congress vote on whether or not we stay in that war. I believe that we have become far too comfortable with the United States engaging in military interventions all over the world. We have now been in Afghanistan for 17 years, the longest war in American history. Our troops are now in Syria under what I believe are questionable authorities and the administration has indicated that it may broaden that mission even more.
The time is long overdue for Congress to reassert its constitutional role in determining when and where our country goes to war and I’m very proud to be working with Senator Lee and Senator Murphy on this vitally important issue. Senator Lee.
SEN. MIKE LEE: Importantly, this legislation is neither liberal nor conservative. It’s neither Democratic nor Republican. This is an American principle, a constitutional principle. But it’s constitutional in a uniquely American way. As James Madison explained in Federalist 69, one of the things that would come to differentiate the American form of government, the American republic, from the monarchy, from our old system of government prior to the Revolution, is that our chief executive would not be exclusively empowered to initiate war. Instead, there would be a shared power. A power belonging to the people’s elected representatives in Congress, the branch of government most accountable to the people elected, regular intervals. That power would be shared with the president’s power as commander in chief.
Now, there are, of course, some gray areas in between where the president’s power as commander in chief ends and where the Congress’s power to declare war begins. It’s one of the reasons why the War Powers Act of 1973 was adopted, in order to identify where those spaces overlap, where they intersect, and that’s what we’re addressing here. This particular conflict in which the United States is providing assistance to a Saudi led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen is a good example of how something can become an inter-branch issue rather than a Republican versus Democratic issue.
Our involvement commenced, of course, during President Obama and has continued during the current presidency. This involvement is therefore not the creation of either political party.
But over the course of the last few decades, there has a been a steady erosion due to the willingness on the part of members of Congress to acquiesce to executive authority in this area. So, it’s important that we address this from time to time, especially when American lives are being put on the line and American resources are being devoted toward a particular conflict. The American people have every right and every reasonable expectation that their elected representatives in Congress will debate this and will discuss this rather than simply allowing it to happen.
We’re involved in midair refueling. We’re involved in identifying targets. We are involved in intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance. These are all things that are very significant in that we are providing material assistance to a Saudi led coalition and the involvement in a civil war in Yemen.
The American people have every right to expect that we would do something about this and that we would exercise our power, pursuant to Article I Section 8 of the Constitution and consistent with the War Powers Act of 1973. That’s what this legislation does and it’s not every day that Senator Sanders and Senator Murphy and I come together on something but we firmly agree on this, underscoring the fact that this is not a partisan issue. This is instead a constitutional issue which we stand behind wholeheartedly.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Yes?
BRYANT HARRIS: Thanks so much for doing this. Two questions. First, when the House-
SEN. MIKE LEE: Sorry, you are?
BRYANT HARRIS: Oh, pardon me. Bryant Harris with Al-Monitor. We cover the Middle East and North Africa. When the House tried to do this last autumn, it was also pursuant to the War Powers resolution theoretically guaranteed floor vote. Obviously, the two chambers have different rules, but House leadership basically attempt to strip it of that privileged status. Do you have guarantees from Leader McConnell and chair Corker that this actually will go to the floor?
And also, on kind of the basis of your argument that midair refueling qualifies as hostilities, the US has not directly itself targeted the Houthis and fortunately there have been no US deaths in this campaign against the Houthis. So, how confident are you with your legal argument on this?
SEN. MIKE LEE: Well, first of all, the term hostilities is not defined itself in the War Powers Act. The War Powers Act does trigger our authority whenever we put our armed services personnel into situation where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances. These are the kinds of circumstances in which hostilities are involved and we’re also putting our armed forces personnel and equipment into territory, air space or waters of a foreign nation while prepared for combat. Those things themselves implicate the War Powers Act.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I honestly believe that if you look at the War Powers Act, that what the United States is doing now constitutes being involved in a military action in violation of that Act. I think that’s pretty clear..
SPEAKER: Senators, I’m… with the Washington Post. Two questions that are related, I guess. One, I was hoping you could just go through the procedure of what has to happen to bring this up in the Senate to get those…back up to speed. Also, you mentioned Afghanistan, Syria, but you’re not addressing those first. Your focus is on Yemen. So, why risk conflict to do this, there has been talk of… and other things for years]-
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Right, right.
SPEAKER: So, why this now?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, let me start off. As I understand the process, we are gonna be introducing this resolution. The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs has 10 days to discharge it. If it does not, one of us will be on the floor asking for its discharge at a time that we think appropriate and then we’d begin the debate.
Getting back to your question, what will Senator McConnell do? I don’t know what Mike has additional information, but if in fact he chooses not to let us go forward and tries to table this resolution, then in fact the tabling will be a vote on the essence of what we’re talking about.
In terms of Syria, I have speaking only for myself, serious concerns but I think the point that Senator Lee made, which I very strongly agree with, it’s not just Yemen and it’s not just Syria and it’s not just Afghanistan. What it is, is the fundamental principle of what entity of government decides whether or not we go to war. And the Constitution is quite clear that that must be the United States Congress and not simply the president.
SPEAKER: Senator Lee, for you though, why Yemen and not the-
SEN. MIKE LEE: Well, we have to deal with these conflict by conflict. It wouldn’t make any sense to put out one resolution dealing with every issue. It makes sense to address it one at a time and that’s why we’re addressing it this way.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: And it’s the principle. It’s the principle. If we can establish this principle, it will be a significant departure from past foreign policy in the United States.
SPEAKER: Do you believe it’s more important for establishing principle on Yemen, though, than these other conflicts… do you feel more-
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I look at it not so much as the particular country, but the principle involved. Yemen is as good a place to start as any.
SEN. MIKE LEE: Yeah, ma’am?
ELLEN MITCHELL: Ellen Mitchell from The Hill. This goes back to the first question. Do you have any commitment from Senate leadership to bring this up on the floor?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Mike?
SEN. MIKE LEE: No, and that’s why we’re gonna utilize our procedural rights and we’ll see where that takes us.
ELLEN MITCHELL: Have you discussed this at all with Mr. McConnell-
SEN. MIKE LEE: I’ve discussed with my colleagues, including him, that I’m gonna be bringing up this legislation.
ELLEN MITCHELL: What was his reaction to that?
SEN. MIKE LEE: You’ll have to ask him.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Okay? Good. Okay. Thanks very much.
SEN. MIKE LEE: Thank you.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Good job.
SEN. MIKE LEE: Thank you.