Israel aid drives wedge within Congress

Israel aid drives wedge within Congress

Speaker Mike Johnson on Monday further roiled Congress’ debate over aiding Israel, deepening divisions between the GOP House and Democratic Senate on an issue that most members of Congress otherwise agree on.

Johnson’s $14.3 billion aid package for Israel — leaving out Ukraine assistance and other bipartisan priorities — drew immediate Democratic condemnation, from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on down. President Joe Biden’s party lined up to blast Johnson’s plan, noting that it raids IRS funding from last Congress’ Democrats-only Inflation Reduction Act and would likely hike spending as a result.

That makes the bill doomed in the Senate from the start, depriving the House of an opportunity to potentially jam the upper chamber with a bill too popular for Democrats to resist.

“That’s a poison pill and non-starter. It’s just not the way we’re going to proceed,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said. “It’s got to be bipartisan. And the House has to realize they can’t work on a bill just with Republicans.”

Cardin said he’s “optimistic” that the Senate can craft its own mega-package, linking Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and border funding. Even then, though, the House GOP can simply ignore that. Which leaves the forecast for quick aid to any U.S. allied nation quite cloudy at the moment.

It’s not hard to envision a standoff over the dueling aid strategies: The House GOP’s limited Israel bill against a more sweeping Senate aid package — if one can even pass. The clash is escalating as a government shutdown looms in less than three weeks, should the two chambers fail to agree on federal funding.

“How this comes together is still an open question. There will probably be a negotiation between the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans and probably some of our own members,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said.

Despite Johnson’s effort to fund the Israel aid with tax agency cuts, his legislation is still facing scrutiny from conservatives like Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who said “we simply can’t afford it.” Some pro-Israel House Democrats may support the bill, which needs only a simple majority to pass — by contrast, the Senate will need 60 votes for any legislation, including at least nine Republicans.

The 13-page bill represents Johnson’s first major piece of legislation to head to the House floor, besides a recent resolution backing Israel’s drive to defeat Hamas. Yet it may be ignored entirely across the Capitol, where Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are eying a far larger global aid package that would include funding for Israel and Ukraine.

McConnell said he will address the legislation during his Tuesday briefing with reporters, though on Monday he defended a more sweeping aid approach during an appearance in Louisville, Ky. Schumer bristled at the House GOP’s bill shortly after its release, criticizing its narrow scope as well as its targeting of IRS funds.

“We believe, our Democratic Caucus, we should be doing all of it together: Israel, Ukraine, South Pacific, etc. And obviously a pay-for like that makes it much harder to pass,” Schumer said.

Earlier Monday, Johnson told reporters that he intends to speak with Schumer about the Israel-only funding bill this week. He said on Sunday that there are many global issues to address but Israel “takes the immediate” attention.

That approach differs markedly from the Senate’s, since both Schumer and McConnell are pushing to bundle the two issues together. It’s possible that an Israel-only aid bill without spending cuts in it could have resonated with more Democratic senators, given the challenges of drafting a version that includes Ukraine and the political urgency on both sides of the aisle to stand with Israel.

But once Johnson’s plan emerged, Democratic leadership had little qualms about dismissing it.

“I think things are tied together and should be,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. As for trying to pay for emergency foreign assistance, he added, “I don’t think it’s practical, particularly in this circumstance.”

The House Republican bill comes on the heels of Biden’s request for $106 billion in emergency aid, and it matches the president’s request for $14.3 billion for Israel. The administration has also asked for more than $61 billion for Ukraine and about $10 billion in humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Gaza.

Many GOP senators are arguing publicly and privately that the Israel piece of the package shouldn’t get bogged down in the massive funding request. The problem for them: They don’t control what gets a vote.

“Sen. Schumer’s the one who puts the bill on the floor. Unfortunately he’s the majority leader, so it’s his prerogative. And we’re going to have to have a conversation about how we proceed,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

The House measure includes $4 billion in Pentagon funding to transfer to Israel for Iron Dome and David’s Sling, two missile defense systems to defend against rocket attacks. The package also includes $4.4 billion for the Pentagon to replace inventories of weapons and equipment sent to Israel as well as to reimburse the military for training and other services. Another $3.5 billion would go to the State Department in foreign military financing to help arm Israel.

The bill includes $4.4 billion for the Pentagon to use broadly on “attacks in Israel,” through next September. The military can also tap into that money to backfill weapons and reimburse itself for training.

It adds $801.4 million for the Army to use on ammunition, $10 million for the Navy to use on weapons, $38.6 million for the Air Force to buy missiles — in addition to $4 billion for the Iron Dome and David’s Sling, two missile defense systems to defend against rocket attacks and $1.2 billion that would go toward research and development efforts for Iron Beam, Israel’s air defense laser project.

Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.

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