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House Committee advances strongly bipartisan Hamas, Iran legislation, but not without an explosive argument

A House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting that approved bipartisan legislation relating to Iran and Hamas also devolved into a bitter partisan disagreement about the Palestinian people

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) leaves the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building following news interviews on Capitol Hill on October 10, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Two weeks after Hamas’ assault on Israel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee came together on Thursday to pass, with strong bipartisan support, a slate of legislation aimed at cracking down on Hamas, as well as its sponsors in Tehran and other Iranian affiliates.

But despite the general bipartisan agreement on the legislation debated, the hours-long committee meeting descended into a verbal sparring match between Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) and a number of Democrats on the committee, most prominently Ranking Member Greg Meeks (D-NY).

Mast argued at multiple points in the hearing that Hamas is representative of and functionally indistinguishable from the Palestinian people at large.

“People need to move away from this idea of saying that the Palestinians are not Hamas, and that Hamas are not the Palestinians,” Mast said. “This is what they train them up to be. This is their pedigree… and I think you would be hard-pressed right now to find the Palestinian that is not in support of the hostages and the killing that took place, as opposed to the ones that stood against it.”

Meeks shouted back at Mast, pounding on the dais, “Mr. Mast, are you Ku Klux Klan? … All Palestinians don’t belong to Hamas, just like all white people don’t belong to the Ku Klux Klan.”

Mast, who is also among the most vocal skeptics of a two-state solution on Capitol Hill, argued in response that there were few, if any examples, of Palestinians resisting or actively trying to stop Hamas’ actions, and that Hamas was elected in Gaza.

Several other Democrats chimed in in support of Meeks, arguing that most Gaza residents have never had the opportunity to vote, that characterizing all Palestinians as terrorist threats is counterproductive to U.S. and Israeli security interests and that at least some Palestinians seek a peaceful future and have worked to assist Israeli forces.

Meeks later explained that Mast’s comments had upset him because of his personal history and that of the Black community: ”I would urge in my community — people who would grow up and say, ‘I hate white people.’ Because their vision was they were all the same. And I fought, I said ‘You can’t hate all white people. You can’t say they’re all the same.’”

Outside of the confrontation, much of the meeting proceeded along a generally bipartisan basis.

The committee unanimously approved a bill asking the administration to present a strategy for preventing western technology from being used In Iranian drones, a bill requiring annual reports on antisemitic and anti-Israel content in U.S.-backed Palestinian school curricula and a resolution calling on the European Union to fully designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

The committee approved by a 40 to 7 vote the SHIP Act, which would sanction ports, refineries, shipping companies and others in China and elsewhere involved in facilitating Iran’s dodging of oil sanctions. Meeks and Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Dean Phillips (D-MN), Sara Jacobs (D-CA), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Jonathan Jackson (D-IL) and Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-CA) voted against the bill.

Opponents voiced concerns that the sanctions in the legislation were so over-broad that they could harm U.S. allies, cripple the global shipping industry and global economy, drive up domestic gas and consumer prices and put more oil revenues in Russia’s pockets.

Meeks added that, despite some negotiated changes, the bill was “not ready for prime time,” and that it would not be an effective tool to extract concessions from Iran without multinational buy-in and more flexible waiver capabilities to scale up or down sanctions as needed.

Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) called the bill “not just a message to Iran, but to the entire world that we are unwavering” and accused Democrats of being “soft on Iran” and “afraid to punish” the backers of Hamas’ attack on Israel. He also slammed Democrats for their opposition to increased domestic oil and gas production.

Castro proposed an amendment that would have required a study of the bill’s impacts on U.S. oil prices before the sanctions were implemented, and blocked implementation if they would increase gas prices. The amendment was rejected 30 to 16, with Democrats Susan Wild (D-PA), Kathy Manning (D-NC), Jared Moskowitz (D-FL), Jim Costa (D-CA) and Brad Schneider (D-IL) voting “no.”

A Phillips amendment requesting a diplomatic strategy and international working group to combat Iran’s oil exports was rejected along party lines.

A second Phillips amendment requesting a report on the secondary effects of the bill — including its impacts on consumer fuel prices, shipping, Russian oil prices and China’s opioid trade — was also rejected by a 26 to 21 vote. Moskowitz voted with Republicans against the latter amendment.

With 42 votes in favor and Castro voting present, the committee advanced the MARITIME Act, a bill that seeks to expand regional naval cooperation among the Abraham Accords member nations, with an eye toward deterring Iranian malign activities at sea.

Castro introduced an amendment, rejected along party lines, that would have excluded from such cooperative agreements any country that establishes close defense or intelligence relationships with China. He warned that not including such a limitation could jeopardize American intelligence and technology.

Wagner said that she “strongly agree[d]” with the “spirit and intent” of Castro’s amendment but that the language was so broad as to “[endanger] the goals of the underlying bill,” “[tie] our diplomats’ hands and [signal] to Abraham Accords countries that we are open to putting these historic peace agreements back on the negotiating table.” She said the Castro proposal would ultimately push U.S. partners toward China and Russia.

By a vote of 44 to 2, the committee advanced a bill that would place sanctions on individuals, entities and governments that provide support to Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian terrorist groups. Castro and Jacobs voted against the bill.

During debate over the legislation, some Democrats expressed concerns about changes to the legislation that tightened restrictions on humanitarian aid to the Palestininans, requiring specific waivers of sanctions rather than a blanket exception for aid.

Jacobs introduced an amendment that sought to reverse that change, which was rejected by a vote of 27 to 18, with Schneider and Manning joining all Republicans in voting against it.

“The sanctions proposed in this bill, while aimed at upholding peace, potentially restrict humanitarian aid from reaching innocent Palestinians in need,” Jacobs said. “The situation in Gaza is dire. And it’s not about politics. It’s about people. It’s about preventing a humanitarian catastrophe”

Mast, the bill’s lead sponsor, responded that “any assistance should be slowed down. Because I would challenge anybody in here to point to me which Palestinian is Hamas, and which one is an innocent civilian.”

A bill seeking to head off future Iranian hostage-taking of Americans passed by a vote of 40 to 5. Castro, Jacobs, Kamlager-Dove and Reps. Andy Kim (D-NJ) and Dina Titus (D-NV) voted against the legislation.

Some Democrats expressed concern about a provision seeking to bar U.S. passport holders from traveling to Iran, which they said was unnecessarily restrictive and wrongheaded. 

A Jacobs amendment to remove this provision failed by a 28 to 17 vote. Wild, Manning and Schneider voted with Republicans against the amendment.

Meeks said that he supported the legislation but worried that it included overly burdensome reporting requirements that could distract key officials focused on hostage rescue efforts from their work. He said he hoped to work with the bill’s sponsors to reduce the number of reports requested in the bill before it comes to the House floor.

A resolution declaring that it is U.S. policy to oppose a nuclear-armed Iran by “all means necessary” and supporting Israel’s “freedom of action” to stop Iran’s nuclear program passed by a vote of 37 to 3. Castro, Jacobs and Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) voted against it.

Democrats skeptical of the bill said they agreed with its overall intent but were concerned that the “all means necessary” language could be construed as an authorization for use of U.S. military force against Iran.

Crow also warned that “all means necessary” could include using nuclear weapons, an option he said should be off the table. 

And, he argued, “democracies and our partners and allies absolutely have ‘freedom of action’… But to say that we will support them no matter what they do, even if that doesn’t include coordination or collaboration with us puts us in an untenable situation.” 

He said that the bill should have included language regarding coordination and collaboration with allies.

Supporters of the bill responded that the resolution — which does not constitute binding policy — is by definition not an authorization for use of military force and could not be legally construed as one.

The hearing also included several condemnations of Hamas’ attack on Israel, affirmations of Israel’s right to defend itself and comments highlighting the plight of the hostages that Hamas still holds in Gaza.

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