Sunday, May 19, 2024

US House approves aid for Ukraine, Israel

US House lawmakers in both parties have joined forces to send a massive package of foreign aid to the Senate, ending a long and bitter stalemate over the fate of the legislation and all but ensuring the delivery of billions of dollars in new help to embattled allies across the globe.

The rare weekend votes were the culmination of months of fierce debate within the House GOP conference over how — or even if — Congress should step in with another round of military help for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan while providing humanitarian aid for civilian victims in Gaza and other war-torn regions around the globe.

The debate had split House Republicans into warring factions, pitting Reagan-minded traditionalists — who support strong interventions overseas to counter the imperial designs of Russia and China — against a newer brand of “America First” conservative who fought to limit the foreign spending and focus instead on domestic problems, particularly the migrant crisis at the southern border.

In the end, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) defied his conservative critics, pushing to the floor a series of four bills providing the overseas assistance but detaching those funds from a separate border security bill, which failed on the floor during Saturday’s votes. He framed the aid as a simple, but crucial, continuation of America’s responsibility to democratic allies under siege from despots.

“I think providing lethal aid to Ukraine right now is critically important,” Johnson said this week.

“I really do believe the intel and the briefings that we’ve gotten. I believe Xi and Vladimir Putin and Iran really are an axis of evil.”

“To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys,” he added.

“My son is gonna begin in the Naval Academy this fall, this is a live-fire exercise for me as it is so many American families. This is not a game. It’s not a joke. We can’t play politics with this, we have to do the right thing.”

Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said Johnson had reached the decision to charge ahead by a method that’s become routine for the devoutly evangelical Speaker: he turned to prayer.

“I think he was torn between trying to save his job and doing the right thing,” added McCaul, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee who has pushed for months for more Ukraine aid.

“We’ve told him what’s at stake here, and you want to be on the right side of history. And he’s a man of faith. He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, but he, obviously, the night before he made a decision, reached out for guidance, and the next day he made the call.”

Passage of the foreign aid bills marked a moral victory for the inexperienced Speaker, who took the gavel less than six months ago. The package — passed with four separate votes — includes roughly $61 billion for Ukraine, $26 billion for Israel, $8 billion for allies in the Indo-Pacific, and a package of additional national security measures that features a potential ban on the uber-popular TikTok app.

But it’s come with political risks, provoking conservatives who were already furious with his penchant for reaching across the aisle to seal deals with President Joe Biden on major legislation opposed by the Speaker’s right flank, including bills to fund the federal government and extend the spying powers of Washington’s intelligence agencies.

Those mounting frustrations have spurred a pale — but not powerless — effort to remove Johnson from the top job, which has gained steam in recent days as the Speaker made steps toward sending aid overseas. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) filed a motion to vacate late last month, which Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) endorsed this week.

Greene has not yet said when she plans to force a vote on her ouster resolution, and her path forward was muddied last week after former President Donald Trump endorsed Johnson’s leadership — dealing a blow to the Georgia Republican, who considers Trump a close ally.

Still, even some of Johnson’s allies are bracing for the possibility that Greene might pull the trigger.

“With a lot of this behind us, you know, we can move forward with some more normalcy, I hope,” stated Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“Unless we have a motion to vacate, which is foreseeable.”

Johnson, for his part, has brushed off the threat — especially in the face of moving aid for Ukraine — underscoring the important role the U.S. has in supporting Kyiv’s leaders at a critical moment in their battle against Russia.

“My philosophy is you do the right thing and you let the chips fall where they may. If I operated out of fear over a motion to vacate, I would never be able to do my job,” Johnson said, adding, “I could make a selfish decision and do something that’s different, but I’m doing what I believe to be the right thing.”

Hardline conservatives, however, fundamentally disagreed with that assessment. And while they were frequently grouped together during the debate, they had different reasons for their opposition.

Some were spending hawks wary of piling billions of dollars more on the federal debt. Others were isolationists, in the mold of Trump, who want to focus U.S. resources more squarely on domestic problems.

Another factor driving the opposition was less visible: A number of conservatives, particularly those most closely allied with Trump, simply don’t trust Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and are reluctant to help him. Zelensky had refused Trump’s entreaties in 2019 to launch an investigation into Biden and his family’s business dealings in Ukraine — a request that led directly to Trump’s first impeachment at the hands of House Democrats later that same year.

Yet the single greatest issue fueling the conservative outcry related to the migrant crisis.

Johnson had initially demanded that any new foreign aid be accompanied by provisions to bolster security at the southern U.S. border. But he went on to reject a Senate-negotiated border deal that was linked to foreign aid, and later abandoned his border requirement altogether in favor of a strict focus on assistance for allies overseas — a move that left conservatives incredulous.

“How much sense does it make to secure other countries and not secure America,” asked a frustrated Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.).

Johnson has been careful to hear out the concerns of his conservative critics, hosting meetings in his Capitol office, delaying his initial plans for voting on the foreign aid package this week, and tacking a border vote onto Saturday’s calendar.

In an effort to appease his right flank, Johnson also proposed a series of changes to the Senate-passed bill — he called them “innovations” — that featured a number of Republican national security and foreign policy priorities. That GOP wish-list includes new sanctions on Iran; a potential ban on TikTok; and several proposals to ease the financial burden on U.S. taxpayers by providing part of the Ukraine aid in the form of a loan, while empowering the president to seize Russian assets and use them to help pay the enormous cost of Ukrainian reconstruction.

He also split the foreign aid priorities into separate bills, giving lawmakers in both parties a chance to vote yes or no on each specific measure rather than as a full package.

In large part, Johnson’s strategy failed to bring along the conservative critics: more than half of the GOP conference voted against the Ukraine funding, leaving Democrats to carry the vote. And the four bills will now be packaged together and sent to the Senate, angering the hardliners even further.

But if Ukraine aid divided Republicans, sending assistance to Israel fractured Democrats, though to a lesser degree.

Saturday’s vote came just over six months after Hamas launched a brutal attack on Israel that sparked a war in the Middle East — a conflict that has splintered House Democrats, pitting staunchly pro-Israel Democrats against progressives who have sounded the alarm about the mounting deaths and growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The Israel bill included nearly $9.2 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza, Ukraine and other war zones in the world, a provision Democrats had demanded as a condition of their support. But the money was not enough to get some liberals on board, who opposed the Israel bill Saturday largely because it did not place conditions on aid for Jerusalem.

“I believe that we need to have conditions enforced on U.S. military assistance,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told reporters.

“We have to ensure that human rights are protected and international law is adhered to. Those conditions are not presently in this bill.”

Saturday was the third time in six months that Johnson tried to move assistance for Israel through the House. The first attempt, in November, was successful but fell largely along party lines, with the chamber approving $14.3 billion for Israel while also proposing the same amount in cuts to the IRS — a provision that sparked staunch Democratic opposition. The Senate refused to take up the measure.

Then in February, the House torpedoed a standalone Israel aid bill, with many Democrats opting against the $17.6 billion bill as the Senate worked towards a full foreign aid package.

On Saturday, they finally secured the elusive aid. The package now goes to the Senate, which is expected to pass it in the middle of next week.

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