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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukraine and Israel aid bill inches ahead as divided GOP demands changes

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. On Tuesday night, the House defeated legislation that Republicans had put forward to send $17.6 billion in military assistance to only Israel. Democrats lambasted the bill as a political ploy to undermine efforts to pass a broader foreign military aid bill that included Ukraine. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

By Karoun Demirjian

A sweeping emergency aid bill for Ukraine and Israel inched ahead in the Senate on Thursday after more than a dozen Republicans joined Democrats to move it forward, but hurdles remained as GOP senators continued to slow progress on the measure and fought internally about whether to kill it.

The Senate voted 67-32 to advance the bill, which would provide $60.1 billion for Ukraine, $14.1 billion for Israel and $10 billion in humanitarian aid for civilians in global conflicts. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, pushed forward with the vote even though many Republicans were still withholding their support as they demanded changes to the measure.

Republicans are insisting that they get the opportunity to add border restrictions to the package — despite having voted Wednesday to block a version of the legislation that included a bipartisan package of border restrictions. After they huddled behind closed doors in the Capitol on Thursday morning, feuding over which changes to seek, it was still unclear whether — or when — they would be able to iron out their disputes and allow the measure to move toward a final vote.

Some predicted that process could still take days.

“We hope to reach an agreement with our Republican colleagues on amendments,” Schumer said. “We are going to keep working on this bill until the job is done.”

The sluggish action on the foreign aid bill was the latest manifestation of discord that has roiled the GOP and ground efforts to pass national security spending bills to a standstill. Republicans have clashed over how to address international crises without angering the leader of their party and its likely presidential nominee, former President Donald Trump.

Senate Republicans had initially signaled early Wednesday that they were likely to support moving forward with a clean foreign aid bill without border provisions as long as they had opportunities to propose changes, terms that Schumer agreed to in principle. Leaders on both sides were optimistic that they would have enough backing to speedily advance the measure.

But by evening, their optimism had given way to confusion, as Republicans devolved into a familiar crouch, torn between rival factions and utterly unable to make a decision about how to proceed. They spent much of Wednesday afternoon and evening squabbling over which amendments to insist on — and some argued privately they should not allow the bill to move forward at all.

By Thursday morning, GOP senators still had not settled on a way ahead — and it was unclear whether they would be able to resolve their differences anytime soon. But during Thursday’s procedural vote, 17 Republican senators decided to join Democrats and vote to keep the bill alive anyway, clearing an immediate obstacle and allowing the legislation’s proponents to breathe a momentary sigh of relief as they worked to bridge the gap that remained.

Republican senators are split, with some staunchly supportive of sending a fresh infusion of military aid to help Ukraine fight off a Russian invasion and those on the right deeply opposed to doing so. And some GOP senators who back the aid are nonetheless concerned that doing so without exacting a price from Democrats would compromise them politically in an election year, given Trump’s opposition to backing Ukraine’s war effort.

“Failing to take this up is exactly what Putin hopes happens this week, and I’m going to do everything I can to prevent it,” said one of them, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But other Republicans who have championed aid to Ukraine continued to withhold their support. They included Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma. Lankford spent the past four months negotiating a bipartisan deal to pair Ukraine funding with border security measures, a trade-off Republicans had demanded, only to have it rejected by Republicans on Wednesday.

“I’m not giving up on the border,” Graham said in an interview, despite having voted earlier Wednesday to kill the Ukraine aid and border deal.

Among the border-related amendments that had been floated by Republicans were a measure reflecting Lankford’s border deal and a more severe immigration enforcement bill that House Republicans passed in the spring.

There were also talks about a bid to revoke or change the Flores settlement agreement, which sets limits on how long children can be held in detention facilities, according to Senate aides who described the discussions on the condition of anonymity because no decision had been made about whether to pursue the proposal.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who voted to advance the measure Thursday, said he wanted a vote on scaling back the humanitarian aid portion of the bill, which would help Ukrainian and Palestinian civilians affected by wars there.

Other Republicans said they would oppose the measure no matter what changes were made to it.

“That’d be window dressing,” Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said of the modifications being discussed.

Democrats also have a wish list of changes. Nearly 20 Democratic senators, most of them from the left wing of the party, have signed on to a proposal that would require recipients of security aid to use weapons in accordance with U.S. law, international humanitarian law and the laws of armed conflict — and not hamper efforts to send humanitarian aid to civilians. While the measure does not specifically mention Israel, it was inspired by senators’ concerns about that country’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip running afoul of international law.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has railed against sending Israel unconditional military aid given the enormous civilian death toll in Gaza, voted against advancing the bill.

Republican opponents pledged to make the process of passing the measure as long and painful as possible.

“I will insist on every minute and every day of it,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. “I want to be here a week, because I want to talk about what a disaster the bill is and what a mistake it is to send our money to other countries before we fix our own problems here.”

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