As House readies a vote on Israeli arms, Democrats whip members in opposition – Roll Call

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House Republicans are preparing a vote this week on a bill that seeks to end President Joe Biden’s flexibility on delivering weapons to Israel as Democrats marshal their members to remain united in opposition in the closely divided chamber.

The legislation, introduced late last week, could pass with only Republican votes, but the White House and House Democratic leadership are nevertheless working to minimize defections, seeking to paint the bill as unwarranted, poorly written, and a partisan power grab.

The House adopted a rule 212-200 Wednesday, setting the stage for floor action on the bill from Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., the leader of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, as early as Thursday or Friday. The rule allows no amendments.  

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced a draft companion bill that his office says has 17 GOP co-sponsors. But that measure has little chance of making headway in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

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The House bill would place multiple binding provisions on the executive branch, including a prohibition on any U.S. fiscal 2024 or prior-year funds from being used to withhold or reverse the delivery of defense support for Israel.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., is whipping against the bill, Democratic staffers confirmed on background. They said Democratic leaders are characterizing the measure as a “MAGA bill” and not a serious legislative effort.

The White House said Biden would veto the bill in a statement of administration policy Tuesday because it infringes on the president’s Article II constitutional powers as commander-in-chief and his power to conduct foreign relations.

The veto threat came around the same time The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration earlier in the day told lawmakers it was proceeding with a $1 billion arms package for Israel that would include tactical vehicles, tank ammunition, and mortar rounds. The package hasn’t received final approval yet though. A Senate Democratic staffer on condition of anonymity confirmed the report.

But senior Republicans were undeterred.

“At a time of rising global threats, antisemitism, and campus demonstrations around the U.S. that have empowered anti-Jewish aggression, we can’t equivocate in our support or waver in our promise of ‘Never Again,’” House Appropriations Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said in a Wednesday statement on the bill. “We must deliver the critical assistance Israel needs.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar predicted at his Wednesday press conference that Democrats would “overwhelmingly” vote against the bill.

“We believe in supporting … our friends and allies in Israel. We also believe that the president sets foreign policy as well. And we understand that there’s different viewpoints within our own caucus on this,” the California Democrat said. “But overwhelmingly, House Democrats will reject this overly political bill that did not come through committee.”

Aguilar said the bill would “fence off and defund the Department of Defense, the Department of State from efforts that they are undertaking.”

The Democratic effort to whip votes is likely aimed at 26 House Democrats, or just over 12 percent of the caucus, who wrote National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan last week to criticize the pause in the bomb shipment. That letter, however, sought only a briefing “to better understand” how and when the appropriated aid would be delivered.

The legislation would order the secretary of State to promptly approve and ensure delivery to Israel of “all direct commercial sales of defense articles” for which delivery is “expected” in fiscal 2024 and fiscal 2025.

It would require the administration to deliver any paused weapons shipments within 15 days of bill enactment and would bar funding to the offices of the secretaries of State and Defense and to the National Security Council until those deliveries are made.

The latest blow-up over U.S.-Israel policy was sparked by the administration’s pause this month of shipment of large bombs on the grounds Israel would cause heavy loss of civilian lives using the munitions in the Gaza Strip. The pause was also aimed to cause the Israeli military to hold off from deepening its ground invasion of the city of Rafah, where some 1 million Palestinians are sheltering in unsafe conditions.

“The bill is a misguided reaction to a deliberate distortion of the administration’s approach to Israel,” the statement of administration policy said. “The president has been clear: we will always ensure Israel has what it needs to defend itself. Our commitment to Israel is ironclad.”

‘Regular order’

Republican leaders of the Senate and House foreign affairs panels chastised Biden Tuesday for a “tendency to undermine the regular order associated with the non-statutory informal notification process for arms sales.”

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch, R-Idaho., in a letter to Biden, accused the administration of selectively classifying and declassifying information on certain arms transfers to Israel for political purposes. They said Congress still has not received formal notifications of either a Foreign Military Sale or a Direct Commercial Sale that fits the administration’s description of the paused shipment of 2,000- and 500-pound bombs to Israel.

“We still don’t have basic answers to questions about the weapons you have stopped from shipping,” McCaul and Risch wrote. “To date, we do not know how these weapons were financed, where they are, or by what authority you chose to do this.”

Also Tuesday, the top Republicans on the Senate Appropriations and State-Foreign Operations panels sent a joint letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III that repeated much of Risch and McCaul’s criticisms.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked the departments to respond in writing by May 20, ahead of Blinken’s scheduled May 22 testimony before the State-Foreign Operations Appropriation Subcommittee, with details about the current location of the withheld shipment of high-payload bombs and the details of any other arms shipments the administration is considering withholding if Israel expands its invasion of Rafah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Wednesday interview with CNBC said his government would proceed with its campaign in Rafah despite the threats the Biden administration to hold back further shipments of offensive weapons if it does so. Netanyahu said the Israeli military could achieve its quest to eradicate the Palestinian militant group Hamas as a military threat without U.S. support.

Progressives’ opposition

Josh Paul, a former senior official in the State Department’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau who resigned last fall in protest of U.S. policies around arming Israel, said the Calvert bill has problematic issues. He said it seems to require the U.S. to provide any type of weapon Israel wishes, regardless whether it’s a weapon that has traditionally not been shared, among them nuclear weapons and cluster munitions.

He also said the prohibition on paying the salaries of any Defense or State Department employee who takes action to curb weapons to Israel seems aimed at keeping the State Department’s Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Bureau, which is tasked with examining alleged gross human rights violations, from speaking up if it sees such behavior using U.S. weapons from Israeli military units.

“Essentially, you’re handing control over foreign policy to Israel’s requests,” Paul said in an interview.

Additionally, the legislation’s blanket requirement that all Israeli orders to U.S. defense manufacturers jump to the head of the queue is at odds with other aspects of U.S. defense policy that have sought to prioritize the delivery of weapons to Ukraine, key NATO allies, and Taiwan, he said.

Nina Heller and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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