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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Johnson’s Israel aid bill sets stage for a clash over security assistance

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023.

By Catie Edmondson and Karoun Demirjian

Speaker Mike Johnson’s decision to force a stand-alone vote on aid for Israel, peeling off a request from the Biden administration for money from Ukraine and coupling it with spending cuts, has set up a confrontation between the House and Senate over how to fund U.S. allies during the conflicts.

Johnson, R-La., who has personally voted against sending military aid to Kyiv, released a $14 billion aid bill for Israel on Monday. It includes a provision that would rescind the same amount of money earmarked for the Internal Revenue Service as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, a key piece of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

Biden has asked Congress to pass a $105 billion aid package for Israel and Ukraine that also has funds for Taiwan and border security in the United States. But Johnson spurned that request, in an acknowledgment of how toxic funding for Ukraine has become among Republicans.

And while a bill to help fund Israel in its war against Hamas would likely have mustered an overwhelming bipartisan vote, Johnson went one step further, injecting a provision that would roll back a top priority of Biden and Democrats that experts said would increase the nation’s debt.

In an interview Tuesday on Fox News’ “Outnumbered,” Johnson conceded that the provision could erode bipartisan support for the aid package, but he essentially dared Democrats to vote against supporting Israel.

“If you put this to the American people and weigh the two needs, I think they will say standing with Israel and protecting the innocent is a more immediate need than IRS agents,” Johnson said.

The decision sets the House on a collision course with the White House and Democratic-held Senate, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers has demanded that Congress pass legislation to address both conflicts at the same time.

“Rather than putting forward a package that strengthens American national security in a bipartisan way, the bill fails to meet the urgency of the moment by deepening our divides and severely eroding historic bipartisan support for Israel’s security,” White House officials said in a policy statement Tuesday night threatening to veto the Republican-written bill. “It inserts partisanship into support for Israel, making our ally a pawn in our politics, at a moment we must stand together.”

Earlier, in an address from the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said: “I hope the new speaker realizes that this is a grave mistake and quickly changes course.”

Johnson appears to have structured the Israel legislation in an effort to keep his conference, which is deeply divided over funding foreign wars, united in the early days of his speakership. Looming over him is the knowledge that his predecessor, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was ousted after he passed two bills — one to avert the nation’s first default on its debt and the other to avert a shutdown — that did not have majority backing from House Republicans.

Already two Republicans, Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, have said they would oppose the $14 billion stand-alone bill for Israel.

Including a measure to rescind money from the IRS — an idea popular among conservatives who reviled Biden’s landmark health, climate and tax law — would actually add to the debt, according to past analyses from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Steven Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, denounced it as a “cynical ploy that risks crippling the IRS.”

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said in a statement that while the House’s call to offset military spending for Israel with spending cuts was “welcome news,” paying for it “by defunding tax enforcement is worse than not paying for it at all.”

“Instead of costing $14 billion, the House bill will add upward of $30 billion to the debt. Instead of avoiding new borrowing, this plan doubles down on it,” MacGuineas said.

It also all but guarantees the legislation will be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where even leading Republicans have said they favor the Biden administration’s strategy of linking Ukraine and Israel funding together.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has been his party’s most vocal advocate for funding the war in Ukraine, has doubled down on his aggressive support for sending U.S. assistance to help the country beat back a Russian invasion.

“The threats facing America and our allies are serious and they’re intertwined,” he said Tuesday. “If we ignore that fact, we do so at our own peril.”

He added Tuesday that while he and Schumer were “conceptually in the same place” on linking Ukraine and Israel aid, Democrats would need to swallow “strong border provisions” in order to win Republican votes.

On Monday, as House Republicans were finalizing their bill to dispatch security assistance to Israel alone, McConnell was in Kentucky, hosting Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, at a forum at the University of Louisville, where he excoriated the approach Johnson had embraced.

“Some say our support for Ukraine comes at the expense of more important priorities. But as I’ve said every time I get the chance, this is a false choice,” he said, calling for “swift and decisive action.”

Some other leading Senate Republicans have been even more explicit about rejecting Johnson’s approach.

“Some have argued for decoupling funding to address these threats,” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday at the start of a hearing with top administration officials to discuss Biden’s national security spending request. “We must recognize that our national security interests are being aggressively challenged by all these authoritarian actors in an effort to dismantle the international order that we established following World War II.”

But some Senate Republicans have pushed back.

“I’m worried that if we talk about Ukraine and the border and Taiwan and Gaza, what’s realistically going to happen is we’re going to be up against the government funding deadline,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., referring to a Nov. 17 cutoff for government funding. “And then it’s going to be a huge transaction. So we all agree on Israel. Let’s just move Israel.”

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