Congressman Adam Smith was the lead negotiator on the bill. He says progressives would have gotten nothing if he hadnt struck a deal.
Congressman Adam Smith was the lead negotiator on the bill. He says progressives would have gotten nothing if he hadn't struck a deal. KAREN DUCEY / GETTY IMAGES

Friday morning the President fired up Twitter and congratulated himself for preparing to sign the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, a $738 billion spending bill authorizing funds for a number of government programs, some of which have nothing to do with defense. Don't you just love how it works over there?

Anyhow, the package he signed later that evening included a mix of Democratic and Republican priorities, including 12 weeks of paid family leave for the federal government's two million employees, funding for Trump's racist border wall, a provision to raise the smoking age to 21, a repeal of the "widow's tax" (a tax on dead soldiers' life insurance payouts that increased dramatically thanks to Trump's tax cut), a tenants bill of rights for military families living on base, and the creation of Space Force, which is widely seen as a windfall for the profiteers of war.

One important provision that was not included in the bill, however, was a one-year ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which aimed to reduce U.S. complicity in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The exclusion of that amendment, among other things, led U.S. House Rep. Pramila Jayapal and other progressive members of Congress to vote against the bill, which ultimately passed out of the House nearly two weeks ago. Meanwhile, directors of human rights organizations have expressed outrage over the Democratic-controlled House's decision to cave to Republicans and the White House on the amendment, given the immense scale of the crisis in Yemen.

The Immense Scale of the Crisis

In case you don't tune into Democracy Now every morning, a civil war in Yemen between the Houthis and a government led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has turned into yet another proxy battle in the Middle East, with Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the other. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates have also exploited the destabilized country, seized territory, and carried out deadly attacks. Iran sees the region as a strategic foothold on the Arabian peninsula, and Saudi Arabia wants to control the area so they can have more avenues through which to ship oil.

The warring parties have killed 100,000 people, including at least 12,000 civilians, "with 65% of the [civilian] deaths attributed to Saudi-led coalition air strikes," according to the BBC. Though the US has recently stopped refueling Saudi planes mid-air as they bombed school children and hospitals, the US still "provides the warplanes, munitions and intelligence used in many of those strikes," the New York Times reported earlier this year.

Aside from those direct casualties, "thousands" more have died from preventable diseases gone untreated due to the utter destruction of civilian infrastructure. Up to 100,000 children have died of hunger, and "24 million people need humanitarian assistance and protection,"—that's 80% of the country—with 10 million on the brink of famine. Collapsed sanitary and water treatment systems sparked the largest and most aggressive cholera outbreak in recorded history. The disease struck its millionth victim back in 2017. The general chaos has displaced an estimated 4 million people, greatly contributing to the global refugee crisis.

Last spring Trump used his second-ever veto to squash a rare bipartisan War Powers resolution that would have ended U.S. participation in the war, saying "we cannot end the conflict in Yemen through political documents."

Humanitarian rights organizations groups successfully lobbied Congress to address the issue in the National Defense Authorization Act—a piece of "must-pass" legislation that's been passed for 58 years in a row—which led New Jersey Democrat Rep. Tom Malinowski to include the amendment to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia for a year.

Why Did Democrats Cave?

After negotiating for months with Senate Republicans on the bill, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee and lead Democratic negotiator on the bill, said the President drew a "bright line" around the amendment and made it absolutely clear that he'd throw the bill out the window if it included "anything that would piss off Saudi Arabia."

Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Jim Inhofe, whose opposition to every Democratic provision in the package was "hard to overstate," marched in lockstep with the President, according to Smith. Had Democrats held the line on that amendment, Smith said Republicans would have chewed up the bill that emerged from the House and then pushed the Senate's "skinny" bill, which included none of the provisions the President disingenuously touted on Friday.

Smith says he "attempted to reason with them" by arguing that the Saudi arms ban had bipartisan support. He began ticking off Republicans who had voted for the resolution Trump vetoed, but Inhofe dismissed Smith's argument, saying, "There are Republicans, and there are Republicans." Apparently Rep. Matt Gaetz and Mark Meadows weren't Republicans.

According to Smith, Inhofe then offered to cut off offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, but only if Republicans could add a provision allowing the U.S. to offer military support to the Saudis if they were attacked by Iran or Houthi elements within Yemen. Smith flagged that request as a way to open up a backdoor authorization of military force, and so he wisely shut down that offer.

After reason failed, Smith said he tried to figure out what Republicans wanted in the bill. "There wasn't a lot," he said. The only thing he felt he could leverage was the Space Force, which he did, but that only won him paid parental leave for federal employees, which is a big deal, but it wasn't the arms ban.

That's when word came down that Trump wouldn't sign the bill if it included the arms ban. Smith says he "fought for it until the last moments," but in the last few days, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had been taking the floor and claiming Democrats were trying to kill the defense bill because they were obsessed with impeachment and didn't care about the troops.

Feeling like he had little more leverage, hungry to pass a bill that would help military families, skeptical that a U.S. arms ban alone would stop war in Yemen, knowing he had zero support from Senate Republicans who would just pass a "skinny" bill anyway, and facing a potential veto from Trump, Smith struck a deal with Senate Republicans and the White House to remove the language banning arms sales for a year. So, Trump wins, Democrats win, millions of Americans win, and the people of Yemen continue to suffer.

"We Can’t Wait Until the Next NDAA"

Humanitarian groups expressed shock and outrage over Congress' decision to not take a firmer stand on ending U.S. participation in the war in Yemen.

Oxfam senior humanitarian policy advisor Noah Gottschalk said, "It's disappointing to see the ways that leaders have been playing politics with the lives of Yemeni people who want to know where their next meal is coming from, who want to know they can be safe from conflict, including from U.S.-made munitions that have led to so much death and destruction around Yemen."

"Whether other Democratic priorities were achieved isn’t for us to say," Gottschalk added, when asked about the tradeoffs of a skinny bill versus the one that passed. "What we know directly is that the people of Yemen were looking to Congress to send a strong message to stand up to Trump and help put an end to this conflict."

Aisha Jumaan, who runs the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, said she was "blindsided" by Smith's decision to compromise on Yemen. She said one of Smith's staffers told her the day before the conference report signatures were collected and the final report was filed that language banning arms sales would be included in the NDAA. When she found out the next day that it wasn't, she and her organization were "shocked and quite sad."

House Armed Services Committee spokesperson Monica Matoush said it was policy "not to comment on the likelihood that any one provision will be included in the final conference report in order to preserve conferees’ negotiating space."

Though Smith claims he fought until the bitter end, Jumaan points to a Dec. 5 interview at the American Enterprise Institute, where Smith sounded like he was ready to pump the breaks on the arms ban amendment.

"There's nothing we’re going to pass in Congress that is going to stop the war in Yemen," he said, adding later that the U.S. should not "cut off Saudi Arabia and UAE’s ability to deal with Iran." Smith ultimately concluded that the extent of U.S. participation in the war was “one of those things we’re trying to find a path through," and said "we need to keep pushing them to get to a peace agreement in what is a very important situation." This was not a new stance for Smith, however. He gave a similar line in an interview last year.

Something that is new, though: In 2018, Smith told the Stranger he didn't think we should be selling "any" weapons to Saudi Arabia or the UAE given what they're doing in Yemen. "That was before Iran attacked Aramco," Smith now says of the apparent distance between those two stances. He now argues that Saudi Arabia will just purchase arms elsewhere if the U.S. stops selling.

Anyhow, Jumaan strongly disagrees with Smith, saying "this war couldn’t have gone on for a day" without U.S. involvement. "The minute we say we won’t support [Saudi Arabia], those jets will be halted," she said. Though she admits the civil war may continue if the U.S. pulls out, she says Yemenis have a long history of conflict resolution that's only interrupted when "there’s international participation."

Jumaan also thinks Smith shouldn't have yielded on the bill. "Let it be on Trump," she said. "Do the Democrats even know what negotiation means? When you send a signal that you're willing to sacrifice a thing, the other side is going to ask for that sacrifice."

As for passing paid family leave and other Democratic priorities, Jumaan says Democrats could have handled all that in separate bills.

"That would not have happened," Smith said. "We’ve been pushing [paid family leave] for 30 years, and this is the first time it finally got done. We've been trying to repeal the widow's tax for 15 years, and it's never seen the light of day. If people want to say we should have let that stuff go to make the point, I disagree. But it’s an argument."

Next, Smith says he will continue to make "strong public statements" on Yemen to keep up the pressure. He plans to work on an op-ed with U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee. He "hopes" to introduce a stand-alone arms ban early next year, and says he'll put "some form of it in the NDAA" next year.

But Smith emphasizes that only a "comprehensive pressure campaign with all parties involved" will end the war. Though the War Powers resolution failed, the message that Congress was willing to act pressured the UAE to draw down in Yemen, he says. Saudi Arabia is also currently participating in "indirect peace talks," according to the Associated Press, using Oman as a moderator.

Gottschalk applauds Smith's efforts to use all the legislative tools at his disposal, but stresses urgency. "We can’t wait until the next NDAA to make progress on this," he said.