Congress is facing a fierce battle next month over military aid to Israel and Ukraine, which has been thrown into flux by divisions among Republicans over how to move forward.
While both chambers moved quickly last week to pass bipartisan legislation averting a government shutdown, they left assistance for the two war-torn countries up in the air.
The decision has highlighted the GOP divisions when it comes to America’s role in global affairs, and it’s raised questions about how, or if, lawmakers will get that emergency funding over the finish line before year’s end.
House Republicans passed $14.3 billion in Israel aid earlier this month, and newly installed Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has vowed to back separate legislation combining Ukraine assistance with tougher security measures at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the Republicans’ Israel bill included cuts in IRS funding — a non-starter with Democrats in the Senate, where the proposal was dead on arrival. And the notion of providing more funding to Ukraine has grown increasingly unpopular within the House GOP conference, presenting Johnson with the dilemma of how — or whether — he intends to bring that bill to the floor.
Additionally, lawmakers are not facing any specific deadlines when it comes to either the Ukraine aid or the Israel assistance. And the must-pass package that might have acted as a legislative vehicle for those provisions in a typical year — the government funding bill — has already been signed into law and won’t need revisiting until late January.
The confluence of ticklish factors has created plenty of uncertainty about how Congress will proceed after lawmakers return from the long Thanksgiving break, when party leaders will have to decide where the aid bill will originate, how it will be structured and what exactly it will contain.
Leaving Washington for the recess, many lawmakers said those details are all unsettled.
“I don’t think there’s one simple way it’s going to move,” said Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “It’s all in play.”
Kick-starting the debate last month, President Biden proposed a massive, $105 billion supplemental spending package featuring emergency assistance for both Ukraine and Israel, largely in the form of military amenities, as well as funding to provide humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians in Gaza, boost security at the southern border and help America’s Indo-Pacific allies counter China’s growing influence.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed last week that the upper chamber will move “immediately” to consider those issues. But the debate has been bogged down by partisan disagreements between Senate negotiators over the border security component, which is essential for winning GOP support in both chambers.
“We don’t know how it’s going to happen,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said. “We’ve got to get back and do a lot of work.”
Amid the muddle, lawmakers in both parties laid out several competing tracks the debate might follow.
Because the House has already passed an Israel aid bill, it’s not expected to revisit the issue unbidden. But some top Republicans said they expect Johnson to make good on his word to consider legislation combining Ukraine funding with border security, if only to serve as a negotiating tool with Democrats in the Senate and White House.
“I think we’re going to have a Ukraine-border bill,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “And then the Senate, after Thanksgiving, will probably pass their Ukraine-Israel-border-Taiwan bill. And that will come over to us, and the Speaker’s going to have to make a decision.”
McCaul said the logical strategy would be for the House to combine everything into one big package, but acknowledged that the divisions within the GOP conference, particularly on Ukraine, might force Republican leaders into a piecemeal approach.
“I think all the threats are tied together, but I understand the Speaker’s got to manage our conference, and a lot of people don’t want it all tied together,” McCaul said.
Other Republicans predicted the House would wait for the Senate to act on both the Ukraine and Israel aid, if only to deflect some of the internal tensions within the GOP conference. A September vote to approve $300 million in military aid to Ukraine was opposed by 117 House Republicans — more than half of the GOP conference — sending a warning to party leaders that the group has soured on the issue.
“I suspect that we’re going to get both out of the Senate, and we’ve just got to find a way to get them onto the floor,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a leader of the moderate Problem Solvers Caucus. “The question is: Will it be put on the floor? Because obviously, you-know-who will object to it.”
Still other lawmakers said that, while a Senate-passed bill would help rouse the House to act, they have no confidence in the upper chamber to move the various aid provisions efficiently. Instead, they’re suggesting that House leaders should be taking aggressive steps behind the scenes to iron out sticking points and grease the path to passage.
“It’d be enormously helpful if they’d just deliver something to us,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said of the Senate. “But the feeling I’m getting is that the Democrats on this side need to get our ducks in a row, maybe some kind of four corners conversation. … We’ve got to be taking steps that don’t count on the Senate.”
Smith, the ranking member of Armed Services, agreed, saying his “lack of faith in the Senate’s ability to do anything” means that House leaders — Johnson and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) — should continue their talks; top appropriators in both chambers should be working behind the scenes; and the White House should engage with leaders of both parties at all levels.
“We’re not just going to sit back and go, ‘Well, I guess at some point the Senate will send us something,’” Smith said.
Jeffries, meanwhile, is stressing the urgency of getting an aid package passed before January.
“There is no circumstance where we should leave Congress this year without making sure that we have provided funding for Ukraine, funding for Israel, funding for humanitarian assistance for Palestinian civilians who are in harm’s way, and otherwise meeting the national security needs of the American people,” Jeffries told reporters in the Capitol last week.
But he’s also warning GOP leaders that the inclusion of conservative wish-list provisions — such as the IRS cuts — would immediately dissolve Democratic support and sink the underlying aid bills.
“There is nothing that will happen in the House of Representatives in a partisan fashion that has any shot of becoming law,” he said.
Heading into last week’s vote to fund the government, some Democrats had expressed a hope that Jeffries and other Democratic leaders would leverage the Democrats’ support for averting a shutdown to win assurances from Johnson that the Israel and Ukraine aid proposals would both reach the floor this year.
Jeffries has declined to characterize his talks with the Speaker, but some other lawmakers said squarely that it was an idea that was never realistic.
“I am not confident there’s any assurances,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said. “You hear all kinds of rumors that Ukraine and border policy will be in one package, and Taiwan and Israel will be in another. And I want them all together. … I’m getting more concerned, not less.”
“Leverage is of degrees, and that leverage wasn’t going to work,” Smith said. “I mean, keeping the government open so that a shutdown is no longer on the table helps us now focus on both the appropriations bills and the supplemental.
“It’s a hard lift — it’s a hard lift for 1,000 different reasons,” he continued. “But it wasn’t going to be any easier if the government was shut down.”