WASHINGTON — Congress aims to pass a foreign aid package by the end of this year to provide what lawmakers say is much-needed aid to key U.S. allies, including Israel and Ukraine. How members reach a bipartisan agreement with just three weeks left on the legislative calendar is an open question.
Despite the urgency that gripped Capitol Hill following the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel in early October and long-standing bipartisan support for Ukraine, President Joe Biden’s request for emergency foreign aid has faced obstacles to the House and Senate on how to move forward.
The two chambers are arguing over issues including Israel’s war in Gaza, funding sources for requested aid and immigration reform, with no clear path to agreement.
“These are very difficult and delicate negotiations,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters last Wednesday before the House went home for the recess of Thanksgiving. Diaz-Balart noted “bipartisan support” for parts of Biden’s request, but said “the devil is in the details.”
Financing Israel against the IRS
A bipartisan Israel-only aid bill has stalled, in part because House Republicans, led by Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., included an offsetting provision that would fund the aid through cuts to the Internal Revenue Service budget – which Democrats balked at.
Meanwhile, continued U.S. aid to Ukraine has seen dwindling Republican support, with several Republican lawmakers linking aid to Ukraine to immigration reform – a notorious policy challenge that Congress has struggled to implement for more than a decade and which the White House says should be addressed. in autonomous legislation.
“I know that both parties genuinely care about providing aid to Israel and Ukraine and helping innocent civilians in Gaza,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, said before the Senate last Wednesday. “So I hope we can reach an agreement, even if neither side gets everything they insist on.”
Exactly what that package will entail, and how much it will resemble a broader request for additional foreign aid that Biden made in October, is still up in the air. Biden requested money for humanitarian aid to Gaza, border security and efforts to deter China, in addition to funds for Israel and Ukraine.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been a staunch defender of the Biden package.
“No one can predict what will happen”
And the chairmen of the House and Senate Foreign Affairs committees told USA TODAY in separate interviews that they believe both chambers could deliver a national security bill to Biden’s desk next month.
Sen. Ben Cardin, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, said he was “confident that there is critical support” among senators of both parties to pass a broad package covering Biden’s request.
“Obviously, no one can predict what’s going to happen, especially in the House of Representatives,” Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said of the bickering that has consumed Congress.
Rep. Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he recently reassured Ukraine’s ambassador at a dinner that “this will happen.” and told USA Today in an interview that “there is enough bipartisan support” for a full deal. wrap.
Who cuts who?
Many members of the Republican conference still support aid to Ukraine, the Republican lawmaker said. “And certainly McConnell and a majority of senators. And so for that reason, I think it will happen. And all of those things are urgent.”
But how Congress will reach a final package is uncertain. Even though the Israel funding bill has no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate, House Republicans still insist on some form of compensation to fund military aid to Israel — but it’s unclear what cuts, if any, Democrats are willing to accept.
“The Senate can come up with another payment solution,” Rep. Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, a member of the very conservative House Freedom Caucus, told reporters Monday, accusing Senate Democrats of “choosing the IRS over Israel.” . »
Bernie Sanders pushes Israel
Democrats are also caught in their own internal conflict over the packaging of aid to Israel as progressive lawmakers call on Israel to reduce civilian deaths in the Gaza war.
“Not a single penny will reach Israel from the United States unless there is a fundamental change in their military and political positions,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said in a recent statement. calling for “an end to indiscriminate attacks”. bombings” and a “significant pause in military operations.”
But other Democratic senators rejected Sanders’ proposal.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, rejected conditioning Israeli aid, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday that it would effectively put a “straightjacket” on the Israel Defense Forces.
On Friday, Israel and Hamas began a four-day truce during which a number of hostages were released from captivity in Gaza in exchange for Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons.
Time is running out for Ukraine, lawmakers warn
Aid to Ukraine is also on hold, while — 21 months after the Russian invasion began — unconditional support for the European ally slowly wanes among congressional Republicans. Lawmakers have begun warning that Ukraine will run out of ammunition without rapid U.S. aid.
“We can’t play political games with this,” McCaul told USA TODAY, referring to the Israel and Ukraine packages. “These are significant threats to the United States that must be addressed by Congress. And they are all linked. »
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday as the Biden administration announced $100 million in military aid. These funds, however, come from a spending bill passed last December.
The $100 million injection was smaller than previous aid tranches as the United States seeks to stretch its dwindling resources as long as possible, a sign of how existing funding for Ukraine is beginning to strain. exhaust.
“Once again, we want to urge Congress to adopt the additional request we have submitted to enable us to continue to support Ukraine in an unhindered and uninterrupted manner,” the Council spokesperson said. of National Security, John Kirby, during a press briefing.
Feared equipment shortages
As the runway shortens, the Pentagon may soon have to choose between arming Ukraine or reducing the readiness of U.S. forces.
Army Maj. Charlie Dietz, a Pentagon spokesman, said the United States still had $4.8 billion in previously approved funding that Biden could tap to provide Ukraine with military equipment and ammunition.
But the Pentagon could be satisfied with part of these funds, taking into account its own military needs. A National Security Council spokesperson told USA TODAY that the Defense Department only has $1.1 billion in spending authority left to replace equipment it is sending to Ukraine at from current stocks.
That means that even though the Biden administration has obtained congressional approval to send more weapons to Ukraine, it may lack the cash to replace that equipment while the president’s current funding request remains in limbo. The United States has committed $43 billion in wartime aid to kyiv.
Trading border security for aid to Ukraine
Three Republican senators, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and James Lankford, R-Okla., released a proposal earlier this month detailing their sweeping demands for changes to the policy border, including making it harder for migrants to obtain humanitarian asylum status, in exchange for supporting Biden’s Ukraine funding request.
Although Senate Democrats rejected this border proposal, there is still bipartisan appetite for a deal that would include both border measures and aid to Ukraine.
If senators can resolve their differences on immigration, Cardin said, they “will soon be able to bring a bill to the Senate floor with an overwhelming majority.”
“If we could do that and send this bill to the House, I think the momentum would be there,” he added.