on the hill

Senate votes to begin deliberations on Israel aid bill

The Senate voted 67-32 to open debate on a bill supporting Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan but likely has long days of deliberations ahead

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Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) arrive for a Senate Republican meeting at the U.S. Capitol on February 08, 2024 in Washington, DC. The Senate continues to negotiate a Ukraine and Israel aid only bill after a security supplemental bill that included foreign aid and money for border security failed to advance.

After a week of false starts in Congress, the Senate took its first step on Thursday toward passing a supplemental aid bill for Israel and other U.S. allies in an initial procedural vote that passed 67-32. Seventeen Republicans backed the bill, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) opposed it.

Thursday’s vote is a positive initial signal, but not a guarantee, that the bill will have the necessary support to ultimately pass the Senate. Some senators are vowing to drag the process out and others are seeking extensive amendment votes, making it likely that a final vote won’t come until next Tuesday or Wednesday and that lawmakers will be working on it through the weekend.

Lawmakers are still haggling over which amendments to the bill will be considered. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is putting up procedural blocks that could prevent consideration of any amendments to the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Thursday evening that talks about the amendments are still ongoing, but that if no agreement is reached, the Senate will take a second procedural vote to push the bill forward on Friday evening.

Despite some indications that Republicans might seek to pare back or eliminate Palestinian aid from the bill, Republican senators who support the legislation told Jewish Insider that the party mostly views the issue of Palestinian humanitarian aid in the bill as largely settled. Republicans said they are more concerned about potentially shifting humanitarian and budget aid for Ukraine toward military assistance.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) told JI he thinks Republicans are comfortable with the current language, given the stringent new regulations governing Palestinian aid in the bill.

“I don’t think that’s caused a problem for most Republicans,” Rounds said. “There may be some that don’t want to see any humanitarian aid in this bill at all because it’s basically a defense supplemental bill, but there are some parts of this that I think most people will agree are reasonable.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) said that blocking aid in the bill from going to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency had generally addressed Republicans’ concerns.

Despite overwhelmingly rejecting a bipartisan deal on immigration policy — calling it insufficient — most Republican opponents of the bill say that their primary concerns center on the lack of immigration restrictions, which they say must be addressed before foreign aid. Many GOP amendments are likely to focus on immigration policy, Republicans senators said.

“I’m happy to do the Ukraine [aid] if we do a better job at trying to secure our border,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters.

Graham’s opposition to the bill is particularly striking given that he’s been a strong supporter of both Ukraine and Israel. But he is also a close ally of former President Donald Trump, who voiced opposition to the bipartisan border deal, swaying Republicans in the process.

Democrats said that as of Thursday afternoon they had not received any guarantees on amendment votes yet, either. 

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told JI that lawmakers are still putting together an amendment list, “which will be bipartisan,” but described Paul’s moves as a “limiting [factor].”

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Peter Welch (D-VT), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Schatz and Sanders filed a new amendment on Thursday conditioning aid to Israel on a guarantee from Israel that it will not provide U.S. firearms to any Israeli civilians outside the IDF and national police, and that all firearms will be used in accordance with existing U.S. law.

Merkley, in a press release, cited concerns about violence by West Bank settlers against Palestinians. The amendment would also require the State Department to report to Congress on the issue.

Sens. Merkley, Van Hollen, Welch, Sanders, Schatz, Heinrich, Warren, Hirono, Laphonza Butler (D-CA) and Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced a second amendment reiterating that it is U.S. policy to oppose the the forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, shrinking the size of Gaza or a continued blockade of Gaza, and to support Palestinians’ ability to return to their homes after the war.

This amendment already constitutes U.S. policy as stated by Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

Previously proposed Democratic amendments include eliminating presidential authority to bypass the congressional review period for weapons sales and transfers to Israel, which the administration has exercised multiple times since Oct. 7, and restating U.S. policy in support of a two-state solution.

Sanders seeks to strip out offensive military aid to Israel from the bill entirely.

Merkley yesterday also urged the administration to launch a massive independent aid operation into Gaza using U.S. military personnel, using helicopters and U.S. ships to deliver aid into the enclave.

Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Susan Collins (R-ME), John Cornyn (R-TX), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), John Kennedy (R-LA), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mitt Romney (R-UT),  Rounds, Dan Sullivan (R-AK), John Thune (R-SD), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Todd Young (R-IN), Tillis and Rounds voted on Thursday in favor of the bill.

“It’s important we continue to fund Ukrainian freedom fighters, our friends in Israel and deter a war in the Indo-Pacific,” Young told reporters of his vote.

After the vote, House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) urged the House to take up the Senate’s bill next week, and said that Democrats are “prepared to use every available legislative tool” to move the bill forward.

That’s a possible hint of plans to pursue a discharge petition, a bipartisan procedural mechanism that could bypass House Republican leadership to force a House vote on the bill.

Jewish groups also celebrated the initial vote to advance the Senate’s bill.

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