House and Senate are rushing competing Israel aid packages to the floor

By Ron Kampeas

U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, speaks with reporters as he returns to his office at the U.S. Capitol Building, Feb. 05, 2024. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The House and Senate are rushing competing bills to the floor with massive aid for Israel, with votes expected as soon as this week.

The question is whether the bills in the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate can be reconciled, or whether they will cancel each other out, once again delaying billions of dollars in assistance for Israel as it wages war on Hamas.

Democrats hope their version will provide aid to Israel while also supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia and addressing the crisis at the southern border. Republicans prefer a standalone bill that supports Israel without their having to give in on Ukraine or their border demands.

House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana said the Senate package, which is part of a broader border reform package and includes billions for Ukraine, is “dead on arrival.” The Republican lawmaker is pushing instead for the House bill, a standalone bill budgeting more than $17 billion for Israel.

Ben Cardin, the Jewish Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says his focus is only on the $118 billion Senate package, which includes $14 billion for Israel, and which President Joe Biden favors.

A House Democratic insider said the party’s policy on the Republican bill won’t be known until after a conference of the caucus on Tuesday morning.

In a statement, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, the New York Democrat, sounded a skeptical note, but left a door open to encouraging the Democrats to vote for the standalone.

“House Republicans have released legislation that provides critical aid to Israel but irresponsibly fails to address the other national security issues that are important to the American people,” Jeffries said. Republicans have stalled an aid package for Ukraine and Israel while demanding that it also address the record number of people crossing into the United States at the southern border.

“Clearly, the most responsible legislative approach with respect to our national security needs is a comprehensive one,” he said. “That said, I look forward to a robust discussion upon our return to Washington over the next few days about the best path forward with respect to the standalone Republican bill, America’s broad national security interests as well as support for our democratic allies in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and throughout the world.”

Johnson tried late last year, almost as soon as he assumed the speakership, to disentangle Israel assistance from Ukraine assistance with a standalone bill. That bill offset the aid for Israel with cuts to funding for the Internal Revenue Service, which made it toxic in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Republicans are emphasizing that this standalone bill does not include offsets, removing a key reason why all but of a handful of Democrats opposed the bill the last time around.

“During debate in the House and in numerous subsequent statements, Democrats made clear that their primary objection to the original House bill was with its offsets,” Johnson wrote in a letter to fellow Republicans obtained by Roll Call. “The Senate will no longer have excuses, however misguided, against swift passage of this critical support for our ally.”

Johnson told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he is eager to bring the bill to the floor soon. “The reason we have to take care of this Israel situation right now is because the situation has escalated of course,” he said. “I mean the Hamas terrorists have not relented in their attacks on Israel.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee expressed enthusiasm for the House standalone bill. It thanked Ken Calvert, the California Republican, who is the bill’s chief sponsor, on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

“Thank you @KenCalvert for leading this bill to provide vital emergency funding for our ally Israel as it works to protect its families and free the hostages,” the lobby said. “We urge the House to pass this lifesaving aid.”

AIPAC’s X feed did not yet include statements on the Senate package, which was unveiled Monday, but its spokesman, Marshall Wittman, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “We strongly support both the House and Senate bills.”

One way through would be reconciliation, the process where staffers from the House and Senate meet once their respective chambers pass similar bills, in order to craft them into a single bill both chambers then pass.

That may be tough, considering how adamant the sides are about how much they dislike the other side’s bill. “Any consideration of this Senate bill in its current form is a waste of time,” Johnson said in a statement Monday. “It is DEAD on arrival in the House. We encourage the U.S. Senate to reject it.”

A spokesman for Cardin in the Senate said that his boss was not even considering the House bill, and was focused instead on rapid passage of the Senate bill. “This bill is critically important for us to pass as quickly as possible,” Cardin said in a statement.

Johnson’s objects on the grounds that its border provisions don’t go far enough, although Republicans in the Senate who back the bill say that it goes farther than any previous proposal in controlling the migrant flow.

Sen. James Lankford, the Oklahoma Republican who backs the bill, slammed fellow Republicans who he said are kowtowing to former President Donald Trump, who is opposed to the bill. Trump’s critics say he does not want to give President Joe Biden a legislative win on a wedge issue ahead of an election in which they will likely once again face off. Trump and an increasing number of Republicans also oppose more aid for Ukraine.

“If people think that politics are wrong, and now we’re in a presidential year, so let’s not help Biden in the process, we’re just going to disagree on that,” Lankford told CNN.

In a statement Monday, Biden made clear he was going to play hardball to get the Senate bill passed. “House Republicans have to decide. Do they want to solve the problem? Or do they want to keep playing politics with the border?” he said in a statement.

In a call with reporters, national security advisers to Biden said one component of their pitch would be the threat to Israel.

“This also will help authorize the United States to provide additional military assistance to help Israel defend itself against Hamas, which I want to remind everybody has made it clear that they are committed to conducting the attacks on the Israeli people and Israeli sovereignty, like on Oct. 7, again and again and again,” said a senior administration official. “They truly have a genocidal intent when it comes to Israel.”

Another possible obstacle for the Senate bill is anger on the Democratic left with Israel. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Jewish Vermont Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said on X he would be “offering an amendment to the supplemental bill to ensure zero funding for the continuation of Netanyahu’s illegal, immoral war against the Palestinian people.”

AIPAC’s backing for both bills may help nudge the sides to reconciliation. At least one group influential with both parties, the Orthodox Union, is counseling that route. “We urge the Senate and the House to pass their respective bills this week and then rapidly enact a final package and send it to the President for his signature,” OU’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, said in a statement, noting that the Senate bill also includes $400 million for security grants for nonprofits at a time when antisemitic and other hate crimes are spiking.

A number of pro-Israel Jewish Democrats in the House are already resigned to voting for the Republican standalone bill, in hopes that the House and the Senate reconcile their versions.

“There is no question the United States must support our ally Israel, and I will vote yes for the clean supplemental appropriation,” said Brad Schneider, a Jewish Illinois Democrat, in a statement.

But he was not happy with Johnson’s “DOA” posture. “The Republicans’ cynical, shortsighted intransigence is not only threatening our allies’ defense, but our own national security,” he said.

Also saying they would vote yes, while criticizing Johnson, were Jewish Democrats Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Jared Moskowitz of Florida. “Watching the far right walk away from securing our borders for political purposes perpetuates the dysfunction of the least productive Congress in 30 years,” they said.

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