on the hill

Johnson rejects Senate’s Israel aid bill without border security hours ahead of its passage

The House Speaker dismissed the Senate bill amid emerging Republican interest in restructuring foreign aid as a ‘loan’

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Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) arrives to a House Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on February 06, 2024 in Washington, DC.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) effectively declared that the Senate’s emergency aid bill for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan is a nonstarter in the lower chamber, hours ahead of the bill’s passage early Tuesday morning in the Senate by a 70-29 vote. The moves come amid emerging support from Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, for restructuring aid to Israel and other allies as a loan.

“House Republicans were crystal clear from the very beginning of discussions that any so-called national security supplemental legislation must recognize that national security begins at our own border,” Johnson said. “The mandate of national security supplemental legislation was to secure America’s own border before sending additional foreign aid around the world… Now, in the absence of having received any single border policy change from the Senate, the House will have to continue to work its own will on these important matters.”

Senate Republicans rejected a bipartisan deal on immigration policy last week amid pressure from former President Donald Trump and House Republicans, who dismissed the bill as insufficient and a potential political gift to President Joe Biden.

Twenty-two Republican senators voted for the foreign aid bill, which also provides security funding for U.S. religious institutions. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Peter Welch (D-VT), who oppose additional lethal aid to Israel, voted against it.

Johnson’s statement once again leaves aid to Israel in limbo for the near future, given that the House failed to pass a standalone Israel aid bill last week.

The House is currently not scheduled to consider aid to Israel this week, and will be in recess next week. It’s set to return in the final week of February ahead of government shutdown deadlines looming on March 1 and March 8, and the State of the Union address on March 7. It remains unclear if the House will be able to make a new attempt to advance Israel aid before early March.

In his statement, Johnson referenced the House’s hardline border policy bill, the Secure the Border Act, also known as HR 2. Even some Republican senators opposed to the bipartisan immigration deal have said that the legislation will not pass in a Democratic Senate. Democrats may attempt a bipartisan procedural maneuver to go around Johnson, but that remains an unlikely prospect.

Trump threw an additional wrench into the foreign aid debate over the weekend, with a call that any further U.S. foreign aid should come in the form of a “loan” with “strings attached.” 

Trump had a “very serious” phone conversation with several Republican senators on Monday to further discuss the idea, which the former president apparently intends to pursue further, according to Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK).

Given Trump’s support for the proposal, it’s likely that it will receive broader support among Republicans in upcoming efforts to move Israel and other foreign aid forward. Mullin said House Republicans have also been involved in discussions about it.

Already, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), traditionally one of Senate Republicans’ most vocal defense hawks and Israel supporters, has embraced the effort, urging the House in a Sunday speech and statement on Monday to restructure the foreign aid portion of the package as a loan. Graham described this as the “Trump rule: we’re willing to help you, but pay us back if you can.”

Mullin said that Trump envisions such loans as accruing no interest and having no scheduled repayment date, but “if you can afford to pay us back, pay us back.” Trump suggested over the weekend that the U.S. would demand repayment from countries that don’t follow Washington’s wishes or “go to the other side,” potentially making the loans a tool to pressure U.S. partners to stay in line with U.S. policy.

Pressed for further details on how Trump envisions the strategy functioning, Mullin referred reporters back to Trump’s social media posts and public comments about the proposal, which were vague.

It’s not clear how such a formulation would actually work in practice, given that much of the foreign aid funding in the emergency aid bill actually goes to U.S. defense contractors to replenish stockpiles sent to allies abroad.

The Senate saw a vigorous debate yesterday, over the course of hours, that spotlighted the brewing war between the GOP’s growing isolationism and its more traditional hawkish tendencies. Numerous Republicans spoke for hours in opposition to the aid package, while a few more traditionally hawkish Republicans took the floor to argue in favor of continued aid to Ukraine and other U.S. allies.

Republican Sens. John Boozman (R-AR), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Susan Collins (R-ME), John Cornyn (R-TX), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), John Hoeven (R-ND), John Kennedy (R-LA), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Lisa Murkowski (R-AL), Jim Risch (R-ID), Mitt Romney (R-UT), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Dan Sullivan (R-AL), John Thune (R-SD), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Todd Young (R-IN) voted to pass the bill.

Additionally, Merkley, who took several procedural votes in favor of the aid package to Israel, said he opposed its final passage because he “strongly oppose[s] sending more offensive military aid to Israel” due to “indiscriminate bombing and shelling” in Gaza.

“The campaign conducted by the Netanyahu government is at odds with our American values and American law, which requires recipients of American assistance to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid,” Merkley continued. “While I have supported military aid to Israel in the past, and continue to support aid for defensive systems like Iron Dome and David’s Sling, I cannot vote to send more bombs and shells to Israel when they are using them in an indiscriminate manner against Palestinian civilians.”

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