WASHINGTON – Congress is aiming to pass a foreign aid package by the end of this year to provide what lawmakers say is critically needed assistance for key U.S. allies, including Israel and Ukraine. How members craft a bipartisan deal with only three weeks left on the legislative calendar, is an open question.
Despite the urgency that gripped Capitol Hill following Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel in early October and longstanding bipartisan support for Ukraine, President Joe Biden’s emergency request for foreign aid has met hurdles in the House and Senate over how to move forward.
Both houses are wrangling over issues including Israel’s war in Gaza, funding sources for the requested aid, and immigration reform, with no clear path to an agreement.
“These are very tough and delicate negotiations,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a senior member on the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters Nov. 15 before the House went home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Diaz-Balart noted “bipartisan support” for parts of Biden’s request, but said “the devil’s in the details.”
Israel funding vs. the IRS
A bipartisan Israel-only aid bill is at a standstill, in part because House Republicans, led by Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., included an offset provision that would pay for the assistance through cuts to the Internal Revenue Service budget − which Democrats balked at.
Meanwhile, continued U.S. aid to Ukraine has seen falling support among Republicans, with multiple GOP lawmakers linking Ukraine aid to immigration reform – a notorious policy challenge that Congress has struggled to enact for more than a decade, and that the White House says should be addressed in standalone legislation.
“I know that both sides genuinely care about providing aid to Israel and Ukraine and helping innocent civilians in Gaza,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Nov. 15 on the Senate floor. “So I hope we can come to an agreement, even if neither side gets everything they insist on.”
What that package will entail exactly, and how much it will resemble an all-encompassing foreign aid supplemental request that Biden made in October, is still up in the air. Biden requested money for humanitarian aid to Gaza, border security and efforts to deter China, in addition to funds for Israel and Ukraine.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been a strong advocate for the Biden package.
‘No one can predict what’s going to happen’
And the chairs of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees told USA TODAY in separate interviews that they believed the two chambers could deliver a national security bill to Biden’s desk next month.
Sen. Ben Cardin, the Senate foreign relations chair, said he feels “confident that there is core support” among senators from both parties to pass a broad package that covers Biden’s request.
“Obviously, no one can predict what’s going to happen, particularly in the House of Representatives,” Cardin, D-Md., said of the bickering that has consumed Congress.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he reassured Ukraine’s ambassador at a dinner recently that “it will happen,” and told USA TODAY in an interview that “there’s enough bipartisan support” for a fulsome package.
Who’s cutting whom?
Many of the members of the GOP conference still support Ukraine aid, the Republican lawmaker said. “And certainly McConnell and a majority of senators do. And so for that reason, I think it will happen. And all these things are urgent.”
But how Congress will end up with a final package is uncertain. While the House’s Israel funding bill has zero chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate, House Republicans are still insisting on some type of offset to pay for military aid to Israel − but it’s unclear what cuts Democrats are willing to accept, if any.
“The Senate can come up with their alternate pay-for,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told reporters on last Monday, accusing Senate Democrats of “choosing the IRS over Israel.”
Bernie Sanders pushes Israel
Democrats are also caught up in their own internal clash over conditioning aid to Israel as progressive lawmakers call for Israel to reduce civilian deaths in the Gaza war.
“Not one penny will be coming to Israel from the U.S. unless there is a fundamental change in their military and political positions,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said in a recent statement, calling for an “end to the indiscriminate bombing” and a “significant pause in military operations.”
But other Senate Democrats have rejected Sanders’ push.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., dismissed conditioning Israel aid, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” Nov. 19 that it would effectively put a “straitjacket” on the Israeli military.
On Friday, Israel and Hamas began a four-day truce that saw a number of hostages released from captivity in Gaza in exchange for Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails. Hamas on Saturday released 17 hostages, and Israel freed 39 Palestinian prisoners.
Time is running out for Ukraine, lawmakers warn
Ukraine aid is in a holding pattern as well, as − 21 months into Russia’s invasion − unconditional support for the European ally slowly dwindles among Congressional Republicans. Lawmakers have begun to warn that Ukraine will run out of ammunition without speedy U.S. aid.
“We can’t play political games with this,” McCaul told USA TODAY, referring to the Israel and Ukraine packages. “These are important threats to the United States that need to be addressed by Congress. And they’re all intertwined.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a surprise visit to Kyiv last Monday as the Biden administration announced $100 million in military assistance . Those funds, however, come from a spending bill passed last December.
The $100 million infusion was smaller than previous batches of aid, as the U.S. seeks to stretch out dwindling resources for as long as possible, a sign of how existing funding for Ukraine is starting to wear thin.
“Again, we want to urge Congress to pass the supplemental request that we put in front of them to allow us to keep supporting Ukraine in an unimpeded, uninterrupted way,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing.
Equipment shortages feared
As the runway shortens, the Pentagon may soon have to choose between arming Ukraine or lowering the readiness of U.S. forces.
Army Maj. Charlie Dietz, a Pentagon spokesperson, said the U.S. still has $4.8 billion in previously approved funding that Biden can draw on to provide Ukraine with military equipment and ammunition.
But the Pentagon may sit on some of those funds as it considers its own military needs. A National Security Council spokesperson told USA TODAY the Defense Department has only $1.1 billion left in spending authority to replace the equipment it is sending Ukraine from current stockpiles.
That means that while the Biden administration has Congressional approval to send more weapons to Ukraine, it could run out of cash to replace that materiel while the president’s current funding request sits in limbo. The U.S. has committed $43 billion in wartime assistance aid to Kyiv.
Trading border security for Ukraine aid
Three GOP senators, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and James Lankford of Oklahoma, released a proposal earlier this month detailing their sweeping demands for changes to border policy, including making it more difficult for migrants to earn humanitarian asylum status, in exchange for their support of Biden’s Ukraine funding request.
While Senate Democrats have rejected that border proposal, there is still bipartisan appetite for a deal that would both border measures and Ukraine aid.
If senators can resolve their differences on immigration, Cardin said, they “can move a bill in the Senate shortly with a commanding majority.”
“If we could do that, and send that bill over to the House, I think the momentum will be there,” he added.