Why has California’s Jim Costa voted twice against limiting US involvement in Yemen?

Congressman Jim Costa, D-Fresno, discusses the issues during an editorial board meeting at the Fresno Bee, Wed. August 29, 2018.
Congressman Jim Costa, D-Fresno, discusses the issues during an editorial board meeting at the Fresno Bee, Wed. August 29, 2018.

California Rep. Jim Costa is one of two House Democrats to vote with Republicans twice in recent weeks to block efforts to cut military assistance to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

He said his votes, one last month and one last week, were cast for procedural reasons. Also siding with Republicans in the two votes was Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

Critics saw a motive behind Costa’s votes — his benefactors in the oil and gas industry.

Oil and gas companies represent Costa’s second biggest industry supporters, behind only crop processing and production. Costa flatly denied that had anything to do with his vote.

“Absolutely not,” he said.

Costa noted his votes were to limit debate on the initiatives, and apply only to legislation effective this year. The House can take up cutting Saudi Arabia aid again next year.

And Costa said the U.S. policy does need to change in Yemen to address the humanitarian crisis, though he did not specify his views on military aid.

“When we’re in control of the House next year, we can control the debate,” Costa said.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, the sponsor of the measure to cut U.S. military involvement in Yemen, plans to reintroduce legislation next month to cut aid to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, according to spokeswoman Heather Purcell. Republicans now control the House, but Democrats will have the majority starting Jan. 3.

Costa received $100,000 from oil and gas companies in the last campaign cycle and $500,000 from the industry over his congressional career, which began in 2003.

Two other Democrats currently in the House have gotten more donations from oil and gas than Costa over the years — Reps. Gene Green, D-Texas, and Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. Neither voted with Republicans to end debate on pulling out of Yemen.

Rauf Mammadov, a scholar on energy policy at the nonpartisan Middle East Institute, said U.S. oil and gas companies are closely watching relations with Saudi Arabia.

While those companies, all dependent on Saudi oil, are constantly worried about a “last straw scenario,” when relations between the countries completely deteriorate, Mammadov said there’s little reason to think withdrawing U.S. aid in the war in Yemen would provoke that scenario.

“Saudi Arabia is likely fear mongering these companies now, and it is the largest exporter and largest producer (of oil),” Mammadov said. “But I would not equate pulling out of Yemen with ending Saudi relations.”

Cyril Widdershoven, a Middle East defense energy analyst, mostly agreed with that assessment, but added that oil companies have become more worried as tensions have built between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for a long time now.

“How deep a hole can you dig before you fall in?” Widdershoven said.

While the Senate passed a measure cutting U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen last week, the House no longer has to consider it for the rest of the year thanks to the provision attached to a farm policy bill that Costa approved.

When that maneuver came up for a vote, five Democrats sided with cutting off debate, joining 201 Republicans to insert the provision. Eighteen Republicans and 185 Democrats voted no.

Costa, a moderate Democrat who represents an agricultural district near Fresno, says he voted the way he did because it was attached to the farm bill, which is vital in his district.

“I was worried it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t vote for it,” Costa said. “I walked on the floor and was told 15 members of the (conservative) Freedom Caucus wanted to kill the farm bill, and they said we might need your vote to save it.”

But he couldn’t explain why he voted for a measure that did the exact same thing regarding Yemen last month, when the measure was attached to the Manage Our Wolves Act, meant to remove Grey Wolves from the endangered species list.

Six Democrats voted in favor of limiting debate on aid to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen then, which passed 201-187.

Costa’s office said he only supported the wolf bill, though couldn’t provide specifics on why that bill was important to him to approve. There are a total of two small wolf packs in the entire state of California.

Peterson, the other Democrat to vote with Costa both times, was the party’s lead Democrat on the farm bill and his state has a large wolf population.

Some Republicans defected from House leadership’s position on the aid to the Saudis issue since the October assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist.

President Donald Trump has refused to condemn Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s death, dismissing reports from U.S. intelligence agencies that he is responsible.

South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham calls Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, 'a wrecking ball' who is complicit in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi after a closed-door CIA briefing.

The International Rescue Committee has named Yemen the country at greatest risk of experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis over the coming year due to the civil war. About 80 percent of the Yemeni population are in need of humanitarian assistance, and the United Nations has warned the country is facing a massive famine.

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.