Are we done here? Nope. Cranky Congress still has work to do
By LAURIE KELLMAN
Associated Press Writer
Friday, December 14
WASHINGTON (AP) — Nothing says, “Is it over yet?” quite like Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer propping up his feet on the chair next to him.
The casual vibe in the normally stuffy Senate was just one sign that the end of an ugly 115th Congress can’t come soon enough, even for its own members. There’s been House-like shouting on the Senate floor. Both chambers rang with customary farewell speeches from members who are moving on, some forced out by the midterm elections. And in the House, a few lawmakers have ghosted the whole scene as the sun sets on the only Congress so far under President Donald Trump.
Parties and Christmas cookies only soothe so much in the chilly Capitol after two years of Trump’s provocations, dramas like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the elections that flipped the House majority to Democrats. Everyone — especially members leaving for good — wants to go home.
“We have had two votes in 54 minutes,” griped retiring Sen. Bob Corker as the Senate on Thursday crawled through what would become its rebuke to the Trump administration over Yemen and Saudi Arabia. But the Senate was not in order. Everyone, it seemed, was talking — loudly.
“Can we not just vote?” Corker hollered finally.
“Yes!” other senators yelled back, in rare unison.
“Lame duck” sessions of Congress are so reviled even in less-rancorous times that leaders past have used the discontent to finish business. This year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened to keep the Senate in session to the bitter end of 2018 under Trump’s threat to shut the government down over the budget and his border wall. But McConnell also is holding out hope for some Christmas “magic” to speed business along and allow Congress to adjourn earlier.
So far, there is no sign of that happening. Both chambers are scheduled to be in session next week over hefty matters, including the budget and criminal sentencing reform. Votes remained scheduled.
That doesn’t mean votes will be cast by all 535 members of the waning Congress. In the House, nine members didn’t even bother to vote in December, according to a tally by The Associated Press. One was four-term Rep. Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s governor-elect, who was across town at the White House on Thursday meeting with Trump and others elected to governorships.
“Hello. You’re reached the office of Congresswoman Kristi Noem, at-large member for the state of South Dakota,” says a recording that answers at her House office. “Because Rep. Noem is retiring at the conclusion at the 115th Congress, our physical offices have closed.” The recording refers callers to the offices of South Dakota Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and the option of leaving a message. Many outgoing members are running their offices out of the “Departing Members Center” in the basement of a House office building, which offers numbered work stations for staffers and members tying up loose ends.
A message requesting comment, left on Noem’s answering machine, was not returned Thursday.
There were warm moments. Plenty of departing lawmakers showed up to cast votes, say goodbye to their colleagues and staffers and do the hard work of moving out of their offices.
They included Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who lost re-election to Republican Josh Hawley and scolded the Senate for allowing one party to do most of the legislating. Her staffers fanned out behind her and at least two dozen colleagues came to the chamber when it was her turn to her speak. Schumer, D-N.Y., appeared to listen intently, both legs stretched out and his ankles crossed on the seat of the leather chair alongside him.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say I was worried about this place,” McCaskill said. At the end of her speech, Schumer and the other senators gave McCaskill a standing ovation and lined up to hug her.
And in the House, the Republicans in the California delegation who were turned out of office on Election Day lined up Wednesday night to say goodbye and thanks. They included Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, first elected to Congress in 1988, who began his speech by naming two officers who were killed at the Capitol in 1998 by a gunman who had forced his way in.
“A lot of people gripe about the hours and sometimes some of the friction that happens among debates over important issues,” he said. “But I am so grateful to have this chance … there are many people who are serving their country who are not anywhere near having the wondrous life that we have.”
Outside Rohrabacher’s office across Independence Avenue, his name plate remained on the wall by the doorway. But further along the hallway sat an assortment of discarded furniture and other detritus from his office, including a big map of what appeared to be his district around Huntington, California, with a note stuck to it:
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Senate rebukes Trump, Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi, Yemen war
By MARY CLARE JALONICK, LISA MASCARO and MATTHEW LEE
Friday, December 14
WASHINGTON (AP) — In back-to-back votes against Saudi Arabia, the Senate delivered an unusual rebuke of President Donald Trump’s response to the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and signaled new skepticism from Capitol Hill toward the longtime Middle East ally.
Although the resolutions are largely symbolic — because it’s unclear if they will be considered by the House — passage Thursday showed senators seeking to assert oversight of Trump administration foreign policy and the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
It also marked the collapse of the Trump administration’s effort in the Senate to contain fallout from the gruesome killing.
One measure recommended that the U.S. end its assistance to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. The other put the blame for the death of Khashoggi squarely on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Both had been vigorously opposed by the Trump administration and threatened with a presidential veto. Top brass was on Capitol Hill ahead of voting to prevent further action in the House.
“The current relationship with Saudi Arabia is not working,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who opposed the Yemen resolution but called the crown prince “so toxic, so tainted, so flawed” after the Khashoggi’s killing that “you’re never going to have a relationship with the United States Senate unless things change.”
The bipartisan votes came two months after the Saudi journalist’s slaying at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and after Trump persistently equivocated over who was responsible. U.S. intelligence officials concluded that bin Salman must have at least known of the plot, but Trump has repeatedly praised the kingdom.
Senators made clear where they put the blame. The resolution, passed by unanimous agreement, says the Senate believes the crown prince is “responsible for the murder” and calls for the Saudi Arabian government to “ensure appropriate accountability.”
Senators voted 56-41 to recommend that the U.S. stop supporting the war in Yemen, a direct affront to the administration’s war powers abilities.
Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who co-sponsored the Yemen resolution with Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, called passage a “historic moment.”
Lee said Khashoggi’s death focused attention “on the fact that we have been led into this civil war in Yemen half a world away” and “we’ve done so following the lead” of Saudi Arabia.
“What the Khashoggi event did was to demonstrate, hey, maybe this isn’t a regime that we should just be following that eagerly into battle,” Lee said.
As Senate approval loomed, the administration dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to the House to make the case against the resolutions and warn of damage they could do to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. A congressional aide and an administration official said their appearance was aimed at stopping any House action on the resolutions.
Pompeo and Mattis had made a similar entreaty to the Senate late last month. But it was roundly panned by senators angered by the secretaries’ refusal to accept a CIA determination that assessed the crown prince had ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed House leaders Wednesday on the Khashoggi slaying.
The journalist, who had lived in the U.S. and wrote for The Washington Post, had been critical of the Saudi regime. He was killed in what U.S. officials have described as an elaborate plot as he visited the consulate for marriage paperwork.
Saudi prosecutors have said a 15-man team sent to Istanbul killed Khashoggi and then dismembered his body, which has not been found. Those findings came after Saudi authorities spent weeks denying Khashoggi had been killed in the consulate.
Trump has been reluctant to condemn the crown prince. He said the United States “intends to remain a steadfast partner” of the country, touted Saudi arms deals worth billions of dollars to the U.S. and thanked the Saudis for plunging oil prices.
But Graham and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, have rejected Trump’s economic arguments. They are setting the stage for legislation next year that goes further in halting arms sales and taking other measures.
Menendez says economic concerns do not overpower human rights and the U.S. must send a “global message that killing with impunity” will not be tolerated.
Frustration with the crown prince and the White House prompted several Republicans to support the Yemen resolution. Seven Republicans and all Democrats voted for it. Some already had concerns about the war, which human rights groups say is wreaking havoc on the country and subjecting civilians, many of them children, to deadly disease and indiscriminate bombing.
The resolution condemning Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s slaying was from Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Both Republicans opposed the Yemen resolution and voted against it.
McConnell said senators have grave concerns about Khashoggi’s killing, but “we also want to preserve a 70-year partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and we want to ensure it continues to serve American interests and stabilizes a dangerous and critical region.”
But McConnell encouraged passage of the Khashoggi resolution and said it provided “a clear and unambiguous message about how we feel about what happened to this journalist.”
The Senate debate came as the United Nations secretary general on Thursday announced that Yemen’s warring sides have agreed to a province-wide cease-fire and withdrawal of troops in Hodeida, a contested Red Sea port city. The agreement came during peace talks in Sweden.
The brutal four-year-old civil war pits the internationally recognized Yemeni government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, against the Iran-backed rebels known as Houthis.
Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
By James A. Haught
In the 2018 election, America’s shrinking segment of white evangelicals mobilized strongly for the Republican Party – but the rising cohort of nonreligious Americans failed to exert their full political power.
As secularism grows relentlessly, white evangelicals have declined to a mere 15 percent of the U.S. population (down from 20 percent in 2012). But they’re so ardent for conservative causes that they constituted 26 percent among the 113 million voters who cast ballots on Nov. 6. And they gave three-fourths of their votes to GOP candidates, according to exit polls.
In contrast, Americans who say their religion is “none” have climbed to one-fourth of the population, but they were only 17 percent of voters this year. Skeptic-agnostic-disinterested folks apparently shun politics along with church worship.
I think it’s a shame that “nones” mostly shrug while white evangelicals throw themselves into elections. Nonreligious Americans tend to hold liberal, compassionate, progressive views, and if their full potential could be realized, the nation’s values would improve.
Prodding “nones” to become politically active – to show them the importance of democracy involvement – should be a top goal of the secular movement.
On the other side, prodding is fierce among white evangelicals. A New York Times report titled “God’s Red Army” outlined a massive fundamentalist blitz designed to generate born-again votes for Republicans on Election Day.
For example, Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition budgeted $18 million “to micro-target around 125 million social conservative voters across 19 different states through door-to-door interactions, digital ads, phone calls and mailers,” The Christian Post reported. A total of 28 million digital ads were e-mailed to smartphones and laptops on the weekend before balloting.
Further, the Family Research Council sent 36-page “values voter” guides to 28,000 far-right pastors before the election, and also sent “values buses” to key congressional districts as mobile get-out-the-vote units.
In addition, Watchmen on the Wall held “pastor briefings” in various states to help ministers mobilize their congregations for Republicans.
Technically, preachers are forbidden to endorse political parties or candidates – but the electioneering blitz left no doubt that the “pro-life party” is the GOP, which also champions “religious freedom,” meaning the right to hate gays, Muslims and other “enemies.”
As the pre-election operation went ballistic, longtime American Atheists leader Ed Buckner wished sarcastically that the Rapture would whisk all the fundamentalists to heaven before they could vote. Organizing beats snark every time, Ed.
After the election, Ralph Reed boasted at a news conference at the National Press Club:
“We had an astonishing level of evangelical voters cast their ballots. This is the most ambitious and the most effective voter education, get-out-the-vote program directed at the faith-based vote in a midterm election in modern political history.”
He said the fundamentalist turnout prevented a Democratic “blue wave” from inflicting much worse damage on Republicans.
I wish that the booming secular movement could find ways to motivate nonreligious voters, to offset such born-again blitzes.
Until that happens, I simply hope that the steady retreat of religion in America will reduce white evangelicals to an ever-smaller fringe, a petty clique unable to sway elections.
James Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice,is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Who are Yemen’s Houthis?
December 14, 2018
Author: Myriam Renaud, Principal Investigator and Project Director of the Global Ethic Project, Parliament of the World’s Religions, University of Chicago
Disclosure statement: Myriam Renaud is affiliated with the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Fully half of Yemen’s population – 14 million people – are on the brink of starvation. Some analysts blame their inability to access basic foodstuff on escalating conflict between two religious factions: the country’s Sunni Muslims and its Houthis. The Houthis belong to the Shiite branch of Islam.
Saudi Arabia, which shares a border with Yemen and is predominantly Sunni, has been helping Yemen’s government forces try to regain control over Houthi-held parts of the country. For several weeks, a Saudi-led coalition has unleashed near-continuous airstrikes on Houthi strongholds including access points for the majority of humanitarian aid coming into country.
What are the Houthis’ religious beliefs?
Roots of Houthi movement
Just as the Protestant tradition is subdivided into Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and others, Shiite Islam is also subdivided. Houthis belong to the Zaydi branch.
From the ninth century onward, or for a thousand years, a state ruled by Zaydi religious leaders and politicians existed in northern Yemen. Then, in 1962, Egyptian-trained Yemeni military officers toppled the Zaydi monarchy and replaced it with a republic. Because of their ties to the ancient regime, Zaydis were perceived as a threat to the new government and were subjected to severe repression.
Nearly three decades later, in 1990, the region known as south Yemen merged with north Yemen to become the Republic of Yemen. Zaydis remained a majority in the north and west of the country, and also in the capital city of Sanaa. However, in terms of the overall population, they became a minority.
According to a 2010 CIA estimate, 65 percent of Yemen’s people are Sunnis and 35 percent are Shiites. The majority of those Shiites are Zaydis. Jews, Bahais, Hindus and Christians make up less than 1 percent of inhabitants, many of whom are refugees or temporary foreign residents.
To reduce the dominance of Zaydis in the north, government authorities encouraged Muslims belonging to two Sunni branches with links to Saudi Arabia – Salafis and Wahhabis – to settle in the heart of the Zaydis’ traditional territories.
Start of Houthi insurgency
Contributing to this trend, in the early 1990s, a Yemeni cleric founded a teaching institute in the Zaydis’ heartland. This cleric, educated in Saudi Arabia, developed a version of Salafi Islam.
His institute proselytized with the goal of reforming Muslims through conversion. It educated thousands of Yemeni students and, in less than three decades, the new religious group grew large enough to compete with older groups such as the Zaydis.
According to scholar Charles Schmitz, the Houthi insurgency began in the early 1990s, spurred, in part, by Zaydi resistance to growing Salafi and Wahhabi influence in the north.
Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, son of a prominent Zaydi cleric, gave the grassroots movement its name. He coalesced support among his followers around a narrative of Houthis as defenders and revivers of Zaydi religion and culture.
Sunni vs. Zaydi Shiite beliefs
What beliefs set Zaydis apart from Sunni Muslims? That is an old story, dating back to the seventh century when the Prophet Muhammad died.
Shiites and Sunnis disagree about who should have been selected to succeed Muhammad as head of the Muslim community. Two groups emerged after his death. One group of the Prophet’s followers – later called Sunnis – recognized four of his companions as “rightly guided” leaders In contrast, another group – later called Shiites – recognized only Ali, the fourth of these leaders, as legitimate.
Ali was the Prophet’s first cousin and closest male blood relative. He was also married to Fatima, Muhammad’s youngest daughter. For these and other reasons, Shiites believe that Ali was uniquely qualified to lead. In support of this claim, they cite sources describing Muhammad’s wish that Ali succeed him. Shiites consider Ali second in importance only to the Prophet.
Over time, further divisions took place. Allegiances to different descendants of Ali and his two sons, Hassan and Hussein, split Shiites into sub-branches. A grandson of Hussein called Zayd gave the Zaydis their name. To them, he is the fifth imam after Muhammad, giving the Zaydis their other name: “Fivers.”
Zayd earned the respect of his followers when he rose up against the powerful Muslim rulers of his time, whom he believed to be tyrannical and corrupt. Though his rebellion was ill-fated, his fight against oppression and injustice inspires Zaydis to actively resist.
A key Zaydi belief is that only blood relatives of Ali and Fatima are eligible to serve as religious leaders, or imams. In Yemen, these relatives form a notable class of people called Sada. Hussein al-Houthi, the first leader of the Houthis, came from a prestigious clan of Sada.
Impact of sectarian differences
Not all Zaydis have a favorable view of Sada elites. When north and south Yemen merged in 1990, the republican government, led by a Zaydi president sought to reduce their outsized influence and limit their privileges.
Some members of the Sada reacted to the country’s changing political landscape by joining electoral politics to secure honor and exercise power. This path was initially followed by Hussein al-Houthi but, after he decided it was ineffective, he abandoned it.
Other members of the Sada, particularly the youth, reacted by pledging to teach and promote Zaydism among their peers who had forgotten their ancestors’ religion. To accomplish this, they founded the Believing Youth organization and set up a cultural education program based on a network of summer camps in the north. Hussein al-Houthi joined this organization in the early 2000s and later transformed it into a political movement critical of the Yemeni government’s ties to the West.
Security forces sent to arrest Hussein al-Houthi touched off the first war with the Houthis. Hussein was killed during the conflict and leadership passed to Hussein’s father and then to Hussein’s youngest brother, Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi. Abdul-Malik helped transform the Houthi movement into a powerful fighting force.
Five additional wars followed over the next six years until, in 2010, the rebels had grown strong enough to repel a ground and aerial offensive launched against them by Saudi Arabia. During these wars, the Houthis pushed beyond their traditional base and captured vast sections of territory.
Many Yemenis, according to one expert, believe that the Houthis are fighting to restore a state like the one prior to 1962, led by imams who came exclusively from Sada families.
Complex factors today
Houthis continue to focus on protecting the Zaydi region of north Yemen from state control. However, they have also forged coalitions with other groups – some of them Sunni – unhappy with Yemen’s persistent high unemployment and corruption.
A 2015 U.N. Security Council report estimates that the Houthi movement includes 75,000 armed fighters. However, if unarmed loyalists are taken into account, they could number between 100,000 and 120,000.
Sectarian tension is only one factor in the complex set of interlocking factors responsible for violence and starvation in Yemen. But it is, without a doubt, a contributing factor.