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House and Senate Republicans Clash Over Military Aid
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House and Senate Republicans Clash Over Military Aid

Support to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan hangs in the balance.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell concludes a news conference on September 27, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Hello and happy Halloween from the nation’s capital, where kids in pumpkin suits and princess dresses roamed the Senate office buildings in search of treats last night. Next up: an iconic bi-paw-tisan dog costume parade this afternoon. For now, though, let’s get to the news.

New House Speaker Mike Johnson hasn’t even had the gavel a full week, and he’s already on a collision course with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell. Military assistance to three of America’s democratic allies—Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan—hangs in the balance, with President Joe Biden urging Congress to quickly pass a $106 billion funding package that includes the aid.

Although the White House is hoping to combine all the military assistance into one package—which would also include funding for border security—Johnson on Monday introduced legislation splitting off $14.3 billion for Israel from the rest of Biden’s request. House GOP leaders expect the chamber to vote on that standalone bill this week—and Democrats may overwhelmingly oppose it, because Republicans included language to it cutting funding for the Internal Revenue Service. 

The bill comes as Republicans in the lower chamber have grown increasingly resistant to additional Ukraine aid, and some GOP lawmakers have expressed frustration at the Biden administration’s efforts to circumvent that resistance by pairing the more controversial Ukraine funding with broadly popular aid to Israel. McConnell, however, didn’t seem to mind the strategy; he’s suggested some of the package’s border security details should be beefed up, but he appears to largely be in alignment with Democratic leaders on tackling the bill all at once.

“Right now, loud voices on both sides of the aisle are suggesting that American leadership somehow isn’t worth the cost. Some say our support for Ukraine comes at the expense of more important priorities,” McConnell said at an event in Kentucky on Monday. “It’s a false choice. America is a global superpower with global interests. And enemies of democracy around the world would like nothing more than to outlast our resolve to resist Russian aggression.”

How this legislation will move forward in a divided Congress remains unclear. The two chambers are currently in a leverage-setting stage, with real negotiations to come later. Sen. Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, told reporters he hopes to introduce a comprehensive bill this week.  

Interviews with GOP senators on Monday night revealed that, with Democratic support assured, there is probably enough Republican backing of the combined aid package to overcome the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for passage. But Republican senators also wouldn’t necessarily oppose a standalone Israel aid bill if there’s no way of jamming Ukraine spending through the House. “I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it,” Sen. Mitt Romney told The Dispatch

“I can’t tell you how it will play out exactly, but there are a number of pathways,” he said. “One would be that the Senate puts together a bill that’s more comprehensive than just Israel, sends it over to the House, and ultimately the House gets to vote on that. Amends it, or votes on it.”

The standalone House GOP bill would offset new Israel spending by cutting $14.3 billion from the $80 billion in funding allocated for the Internal Revenue Service by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—money Democrats have argued is necessary to boost tax enforcement and raise more revenue.

“That’s not cutting spending, that’s cutting revenue,” Sen. Chris Coons, a Democratic member of the Appropriations and Foreign Relations committees, told reporters of House Republicans’ plan.

Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said the IRS cuts would ultimately add roughly $30 billion to the debt. That figure is just an estimate, he cautioned, but it’s backed up by a recent score from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office of a separate Senate amendment to cut some of the IRS money.

Goldwein appreciates that House Republicans are aiming to pay for the aid to Israel by offsetting it with spending cuts elsewhere. But he’d like those cuts “to actually save money,” he told The Dispatch. There are “millions of things” lawmakers could do instead to carve out the funds, Goldwein said, like targeting abuses of green energy tax breaks Democrats passed in their climate law. “It should be super easy to find $14 billion to offset it.”

With an offset that doesn’t truly offset the spending, and an approach that may quash bipartisan consensus, Johnson’s bill doesn’t appear to be a serious attempt to craft law. At their most generous, lawmakers interpreted it as an opening offer to win concessions from the Biden administration. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat from Florida, had a more critical view. He slammed Republicans for conducting foreign policy and national security “as a future political mailer.” House Republicans, he wrote on Monday, want to be able to attack Democrats for choosing the IRS over Israel. “I am not going to take the bait. There are American hostages. This is not a game.” Moskowitz added he plans to vote for the bill, even though it doesn’t have a chance in the Senate.

In the Senate, at least one Democrat seems unconcerned with the House GOP proposal. “It doesn’t bother me,” Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia told reporters Monday night. He emphasized he wants the IRS to be able to update its technology as some of the funds were intended to allow, but he said the $80 billion Congress passed in the IRA—which Manchin helped write—may have been more than what was needed. If he determines such an offset wouldn’t harm the agency’s technological advancement, he said he could support the bill.

It’s not unusual for Manchin to represent a faction of his own, and that’s true in this case. Other Senate Democrats rejected the prospect of a standalone Israel aid bill outright, regardless of the funding mechanism. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, answered with a flat “no,” when The Dispatch asked if she would support an Israel bill without Ukraine money attached. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, added that “Ukraine needs to be in this, period.”

“It’s the commitment we made internationally—we’d stand by Ukraine,” he told The Dispatch. “It’s so important for national security.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, also told The Dispatch the two assistance proposals have to travel together. “What House Republicans are saying is, ‘Let’s surrender Ukraine to Vladimir Putin,’” said Van Hollen. “That’s unacceptable.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a similar point during a hearing with senators Tuesday morning. “I can guarantee you,” Austin said, “without our support, Putin will be successful.”

Van Hollen expressed hope that a majority of House Republicans will support more Ukraine aid, but he didn’t have a firm answer when asked how the Senate can convince House GOP leaders to bring such a bill to the floor. A bipartisan coalition of House members could theoretically use a discharge petition—a tool to force consideration of bills that have enough votes to pass—but Van Hollen dismissed the idea because it is a long process that could take months. “We’ve got to get there sooner than that,” he said.

McConnell-aligned Senate Republicans also aren’t sure how to persuade their House colleagues. “It’s the art of the deal,” quipped Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota. And Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska refused to make predictions. “I don’t know,” he told The Dispatch. “That’s going to depend on a lot of House Republicans.”

“At the end of the day, all four pillars—Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and China, and the border—have to happen,” he said. “They have to happen one way or the other.”

McConnell may feel a sense of urgency in convincing his Republican colleagues to get this done. If Congress doesn’t approve more Ukraine assistance this year, the task will only become more difficult in 2024 as Republican candidates face mounting electoral pressure against it on the campaign trail. It doesn’t help McConnell’s negotiating position that a sizable faction of his own conference thinks a separate Israel bill makes the most sense. 

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, for example, told The Dispatch Ukraine aid is more divisive and that he didn’t want to “hold up the support that Israel is going to need.” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida made the same argument: “I’ve supported Ukraine aid in the past, but I don’t think there’s some reason why they need to be attached other than they think it’s easier to pass it that way,” he told The Dispatch, adding that he thinks the two priorities should be kept separate to expedite Israel funding.

Sen. J.D. Vance, one of the most outspoken Republican opponents of further Ukraine aid, said Republicans “have to be smart politically here” and force more robust concessions from Democrats. “We shouldn’t just roll over and give Democrats everything that they want, especially when it divides our conference so starkly,” he told reporters on Monday night.

Is there anything the Biden administration could do, like additional border security changes, that would win his vote on Ukraine aid? “Never say never,” he told The Dispatch. But he expressed skepticism that anything he would support would get enough Democratic votes to pass.

The conversation will continue in private Republican meetings this week. According to Vance, McConnell made the case for Ukraine aid at a GOP Senate lunch last week. “His view is that this is a civilizational challenge that America needs to rise to,” Vance summarized. “My argument is America is stretched too thin. We can’t possibly support three major worldwide conflicts. It’s not even clear we can support two. We have to pick and choose.”

On the Floor

In addition to their Israel funding bill, House Republicans plan to consider several government spending measures. The chamber is also expected to vote on two censure resolutions and an effort to expel indicted Rep. George Santos. A full list of bills the House may vote on this week is available here.

The Senate is considering nominees, including Jacob Lew to be U.S. ambassador to Israel. You can follow Senate floor activity here.

Key Hearings

  • The Senate Appropriations Committee met this morning to examine Biden’s emergency funding request. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified. Information and video here.
  • A Senate panel on employment and workplace safety held a hearing on artificial intelligence and the future of work this morning. Information and video here.
  • Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and FBI Director Christopher Wray appeared before senators this morning to testify about threats to the homeland. Information and video here.
  • The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration will hold a hearing Wednesday afternoon on threats to election administration. Local election officials from around the country will appear. Information and livestream here.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will examine carbon capture technologies in a hearing Thursday morning. Information and livestream here.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.