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Joe Biden’s Israel Policy Divides Congress
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Joe Biden’s Israel Policy Divides Congress

Some Republicans compare it to Donald Trump withholding aid from Ukraine, but Mitt Romney says there’s no equivalence.

Sen. Mitt Romney walks through the Capitol on September 12, 2023. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A week after President Joe Biden announced during a CNN interview that he was preventing the transfer of some munitions to Israel in order to pressure its government not to invade the Gazan city of Rafah, Democrats in Congress remain divided over Biden’s policy while Republicans are united behind legislation that would force the president to reverse course.

GOP Rep. Ken Calvert of California, chief sponsor of a House bill that would force the transfer of the weapons in question, told The Dispatch that he introduced the legislation because the Biden administration is withholding “the type of weapons [Israelis] need to go into Rafah and to take out Hamas and end this thing. There are four battalions of Hamas terrorists in Rafah, and Israel has made up their mind that they want to take them out.” Calvert, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said that in addition to holding up the transfer of 2,000-pound and 500-pound bombs—plus the Joint Direct Attack Munitions that turn those unguided bombs into precision-guided munitions—there “are some other weapons and munitions that I can’t get into that [President Biden is] holding up the sale of.”

A sizable faction of congressional Democrats opposes Biden’s policy, but it remains unclear just how many will support Calvert’s bill when it likely comes to the floor on Thursday. On Friday, 26 House Democrats sent a letter to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan strongly objecting to Biden’s policy, but the White House later issued a veto threat against Calvert’s bill. House Democratic leaders are urging the rank-and-file to vote against it. 

“We are deeply concerned about the message the Administration is sending to Hamas and other Iranian-backed terrorist proxies by withholding weapons shipments to Israel, during a critical moment in the negotiations,” the 26 House Democrats wrote in their letter. They noted that Biden affirmed after October 7 that Hamas must be “eliminated entirely,” and they accused him of now promoting a policy that “only emboldens our mutual enemies” and “makes a hostage agreement even harder to achieve.”

“There’s people in the House and the people in the Senate that have been willing to screw Ukraine over, and now you have members of my party that are willing to screw Israel over,” Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. John Fetterman told The Dispatch. “So it’s a strange situation.” Asked about the Senate version of Calvert’s legislation introduced by Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, Fetterman said: “I’m not exactly sure what the mechanism is, but there should be no condition, so I would want to see those munitions delivered.” The Pennsylvania Democrat went on to criticize “the public sandbagging of Israel right now,” adding that “Israel should be allowed the opportunity to win or at least prosecute this war the way they feel they need to.”

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he’s “totally opposed” to Biden’s policy but had not yet seen Cotton’s legislation. “You’ve got to support your allies,” Manchin told The Dispatch.

Democratic Rep. Wiley Nickel of North Carolina told Axios on Wednesday that he was “strongly leaning towards voting for” Calvert’s bill. “I’m really concerned that if Trump becomes president, he could do the same thing to Ukraine,” the North Carolina Democrat said.

Another debate dividing members of Congress is whether Biden’s policy of withholding some weapons from Israel bears any resemblance to Donald Trump’s withholding of military aid to Ukraine, for which he was impeached in 2019. While Biden claims his policy was implemented due to humanitarian concerns, Republicans accused him of making a nakedly political decision to boost his reelection odds—by placating the Democratic base—at the expense of U.S. and Israel national-security interests. 

“This is totally unacceptable. I’m old enough to remember when Democrats impeached another President for supposedly withholding foreign aid that had been approved by Congress,” former Vice President Mike Pence tweeted. “Stop the threats Joe. America Stands with Israel!” Florida Republican Rep. Cory Mills introduced an impeachment resolution against Biden that echoed the 2019 “abuse of power” article of impeachment against Trump.* But as of Wednesday, the measure had only five cosponsors and is unlikely to gain traction. Only a small minority of Republicans openly criticized Trump over the Ukraine scandal in 2019, and those that did so settled on the argument that it was “bad but not impeachable.”

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the lone Republican in Congress who voted to convict Trump in his first impeachment, was sharply critical of Biden’s new policy toward Israel, but he rejected the notion that Biden’s conduct is similar to Trump’s treatment of Ukraine. “I don’t see any equivalency at all,” Romney told The Dispatch on Wednesday. In the Trump-Ukraine scandal, Romney noted, “the former was withholding weapons in order to get them to do an investigation of his political opponent. That’s obviously inappropriate.” While withholding military aid from Ukraine in 2019, Trump urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “look into” investigating Joe Biden’s son Hunter.

Romney argued Biden was implementing a bad policy out of bad motives. “I think he’s trying to placate the left-wing of his party, and I think it’s damaging to our credibility around the world,” Romney said. “You stick with your friends, and you let them conduct the war as they feel best. They’ve been attacked. Hamas declared war on Israel, killed its citizens, took hostages, [committed] war crimes, and Israel is defending itself.” 

Nevertheless, Romney said Biden’s actions don’t rise to the abuse of power for which he voted to convict Trump. “If politicians are going to be impeached for doing things that are politically attractive, we’re all guilty,” he said.

In the Capitol this week, several Democratic members of Congress also argued that any equivalence between Trump’s withholding Ukraine aid and Biden’s withholding some weapons from Israel was absurd. “They should liken it to Ronald Reagan,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told The Dispatch, referring to Reagan’s delayed delivery of some F-16 fighter jets for a matter of months due to disputes over Israel’s use of military force during his first term. “Not that I necessarily agree” with Biden’s policy, Blumenthal added. “But I think it’s preposterous to raise it in the context of impeachment.”

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who supports Biden’s policy, said the difference between Biden and Trump is that Trump “did it secretly. He instructed his staff not to tell Congress—tried to hide it. And it took a whistleblower to bring it out. President Biden is using tools well at his disposal, and remember what President Trump was doing was withholding all aid.” 

The recent supplemental bill providing aid to Israel does provide some funds for specific items—such as the missile-defense Iron Dome and David’s Sling programs, as well as a specific amount of money for the “procurement of ammunition”—but it does not mandate expenditures on a particular number of bombs. So withholding certain types of munitions is within the president’s legal purview according to how the legislation was written, Kaine contends. “It’s just, in this amount, we will deliver aid,” he added. “And so it’s very much in the discretion of the administration.” 

New York Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, who served as a House impeachment manager during Trump’s first impeachment trial, emphasized that the corrupt rationale for Trump’s withholding aid was the main distinction between his behavior and Biden’s policy toward Israel. Trump was impeached “because he withheld arms from Ukraine on condition that they announced an investigation of Biden,” he said. “He didn’t actually care that they had an investigation, just that they should announce one. So in other words, he was trying to blackmail a foreign government that could help him with a political campaign. That’s the difference.” Nadler went on to argue that Biden is “withholding certain kinds of weapons for a valid foreign policy goal, namely preventing a lot of unnecessary civilian deaths.” 

A January 2020 Government Accountability Office report—released after the House had voted to impeach but before the Senate voted to acquit Trump—found that Trump had violated the Impoundment Control Act, a 1974 law to curb the president’s discretion over government spending. “Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the report found. Trump’s Office of Management and Budget “withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act.” Nadler said that Trump “probably violated the Impoundment Act, but that’s not terribly relevant. I’ve always maintained that there are criminal acts which are not impeachable and there are impeachable acts which are not criminal.Asked if the Impoundment Control Act was implicated at all in Biden’s decision, Nadler replied: “I’m not an expert in the Impoundment Act, but the president has certain discretion.” 

The Biden White House’s veto threat against Calvert’s bill emphasized that all funds appropriated for Israel are being spent and that Calvert’s bill “could raise serious concerns about infringement on the President’s authorities under Article II of the Constitution, including his duties as Commander-in-Chief and Chief Executive and his power to conduct foreign relations.”

Congressional Republicans who spoke to The Dispatch this week did not accuse Biden of violating any existing statute, but they nevertheless accused him of violating the spirit if not the letter of the law. “Certainly, he’s violating the spirit of what we passed,” Calvert said.

Correction, May 16, 2024: This story has been updated to correct the first name of Rep. Cory Mills.

John McCormack is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was Washington correspondent at National Review and a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. When John is not reporting on politics and policy, he is probably enjoying life with his wife in northern Virginia or having fun visiting family in Wisconsin.