Senate aims for slimmed-down foreign aid package without border policy deal

Senators are negotiating to take up an Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan aid bill with negotiated border policy provisions stripped out

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Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) talks to reporters as he walks to his office at the U.S. Capitol on February 07, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

The Senate inched toward a backup plan to approve aid to Israel on Wednesday after defeating a negotiated bipartisan bill including Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan assistance and sweeping immigration policy changes. The new “plan b” bill retains the foreign aid elements of the previous bill while stripping out the hard-fought immigration deal.

The path forward is still under negotiation, with Republicans demanding votes on what some senators said is a large variety of amendments, relating mainly to immigration policy, before they agree to take an initial vote on Thursday that would begin the Senate’s formal consideration of the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Wednesday evening that the initial vote on the new package, requiring the support of at least 60 senators, will happen on Thursday. Senators are working to finalize the package before a two-week recess starting next week, and may remain in Washington into the weekend and next week to finalize their work on the slimmed-down supplemental bill.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that the Senate is working urgently on the bill, noting that Israel needs more Iron Dome interceptors in its war against Hamas, more funding is needed for expanded U.S. operations in the Middle East and Ukraine is running out of munitions.

“I talked to Gen. [Erik] Kurilla, the commander of Central Command yesterday, and he described the situation [in the Middle East] as being the most serious security situation in 15 years,” Collins told reporters as she emerged from closed-door discussions. “This is serious.”

Although all but four Senate Republicans voted yesterday to kill the original version of the aid package over a belief that the negotiated immigration deal didn’t go far enough, some Republicans are demanding that the immigration issue be raised anew.

Senators said Republicans may be pushing for votes on the House’s hardline immigration package, known as H.R. 2, in addition to other immigration policy amendments.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) told Jewish Insider on Wednesday afternoon, as talks were beginning, that Republicans are seeking “extensive” amendments to the legislation, arguing that the bill will ultimately need to significantly exceed the 60-vote minimum for Senate passage if it is to have any chance of passing the House.

Collins and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) indicated that amendment talks today focused on immigration policy. 

Some Republicans also seek to fully eliminate aid to the Palestinians from the package.

Asked if the Palestinian aid issue was among her colleagues’ concerns, Collins did not directly answer. She highlighted stringent new restrictions and oversight that the bill would impose on Palestinian aid, which she called “the strictest restrictions on humanitarian aid that I’ve ever seen,” as well as its ban on funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

“I think that we’ve done some really good work in putting guide-rails around that,” Collins said.

Republicans may also try to strip nonmilitary aid to Ukraine from the bill, an approach some House Republicans have suggested they might find more palatable than the current Ukraine aid package, which includes humanitarian assistance and budget support for the Ukrainian government.

“I think those kinds of things can be worked through, and frankly, if they drop off, it’s still worth passing the lethal aid component,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) said.

Cardin, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rejected the idea of dropping nonmilitary support for Ukraine, insisting to JI, “We’re keeping the security package together.”

Although Democratic amendments haven’t been part of the bipartisan negotiations at this stage, according to Cardin, Democrats are likely to seek amendment votes of their own.

On Wednesday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) became the 19th Senate Democrat to join a proposed amendment to the supplemental bill conditioning aid to Israel. 

And 27 Senate Democrats, including Cardin and the chairs of the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, are backing a proposed amendment to prevent the administration from circumventing congressional review for arms sales to Israel. 

The sponsors of this amendment include many progressives who’ve criticized Israel’s military operations in Gaza, as well as some lawmakers who are usually staunchly pro-Israel.

There’s still no guarantee this latest bill will succeed in the House if the Senate does come together to pass it in the coming days.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) was generally noncommittal about the latest Senate bill on Wednesday morning, saying that the House would “see what the Senate does.” 

Johnson said that Israel, Ukraine and other issues have to be addressed “on their own merits” — perhaps suggesting he favors moving each piece of the package individually, as some members of his conference would prefer.

Collins said that, even though some House Republicans still oppose a Ukraine/Israel bill without comprehensive border legislation, the Senate needs to “do our job… then we’ll see what happens.”

Mainstream Jewish groups — following in AIPAC’s footsteps — have generally been supporting Israel aid in any form, regardless of whether it’s part of a broader package.

But some Jewish groups have also been pushing for Nonprofit Security Grant Program funding, which has not been included in House’s Israel aid bills but has been part of versions of the Senate’s package. Some Jewish groups also support Ukraine aid.

Indications of that potentially complex dynamic can be seen in letters sent by the American Jewish Committee to lawmakers about the House and Senate bills. 

The AJC offered support for the Israel-only bill in the House on Tuesday, while also emphasizing the need for Ukraine aid.

“While emergency support is vital for Israel’s defense and the preservation of our shared values, there are unfortunately additional critical conflicts currently threatening the world order,” Jessica Bernton, the group’s director of congressional affairs, said in a letter to lawmakers. “While we support today’s package before the House, we hope you will also soon address the urgent needs of key allies across the globe also fighting for their survival.”

Bernton also endorsed the Senate legislation in a letter to senators on Wednesday, highlighting that it would support Israel, Ukraine and the NSGP.

“The Congress must now put aside partisan politics and meet the urgency of this critical moment,” Bernton wrote. “The brutal assault by both Hamas on Israel and Russia on Ukraine will have far-reaching geopolitical implications if not checked. We must not let other bad actors see weakness from Western nations in their resolve to support allies on the frontlines of terrorism and brutal aggression.”

Other Jewish groups are also lining up behind the Senate’s latest bill.

“We [at the Orthodox Union] urge the Senate to pass the ‘plan b’ for a national security supplemental — it will include aid for Israel and critical emergency funding for security grants to protect synagogues & Jewish schools,” Nathan Diament, the OU’s executive director for public policy, said Wednesday morning, hours after it became clear that the Senate would be moving ahead with a trimmed-down supplemental bill.

The Anti-Defamation League “strongly supports aid to our ally Israel to defend itself from the terrorist threat posed by Hamas and other growing regional threats to the safety and security of its citizens,” Lauren Wolman, an ADL director of government relations, told JI. “We believe a national security supplemental should include funding for Israel’s security, as well as to protect the Jewish community and all vulnerable communities at home. We encourage Congress to pass the Senate National Security Supplemental Legislation which achieves both urgent priorities.”

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