WASHINGTON ― Senate Democrats discussed the prospect of placing conditions on a $14.3 billion Israel military aid package during their weekly caucus meeting on Tuesday.
The discussion marks another possible legislative snarl as Congress negotiates a massive defense supplemental President Joe Biden has requested for Israel, Ukraine, the Indo-Pacific and the southern U.S. border. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., indicated Monday that he’s open to a separate Ukraine aid vote but Republicans are now asking for policy changes on the southern border before passing the supplemental request.
Biden proposed no Israel aid conditions in his supplemental request but called the idea “a worthwhile thought” on Friday.
“But I don’t think if I started off with that we ever would have gotten to where we are today,” he added, referring to a temporary hostages-for-ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas that began last week.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., one of Israel’s staunchest supporters, told reporters after the meeting that he would discuss the idea further with the Biden administration and lawmakers.
“It’s been spoken out in our caucus meeting on many occasions and today there was a meeting with [National Security Adviser] Jake Sullivan on the issue,” said Schumer.
“There are different views on that, and we’re going to have a discussion with the caucus and the administration, but above all we’ve got to pass the four bills,” he added, referring to Biden’s $106 billion defense supplemental request.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters after the caucus meeting that senators discussed equipping Israel to fight Hamas while decreasing civilian casualties in Gaza and ramping up humanitarian aid to the besieged enclave on top of reducing Israeli violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.
“We’re going to do an aid package, but we’re going to put expectations as we would for other countries,” said Kaine.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., lambasted Democrats’ discussions on Israel aid on Tuesday.
“If Senate Democrats want to vote to tie the hands of Israeli soldiers as they defend their country against vicious terrorists, I welcome such a debate,” he said on the Senate floor.
McConnell also demanded changes to the Biden administration’s border policies in the supplemental, but it’s unclear what sort of concessions Democrats are willing to offer.
Some pro-Israel Democrats including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Ben Cardin of Maryland also oppose Israel aid conditions.
In addition to Biden’s $14.3 billion request, Israel receives an annual $3.8 billion in U.S. military aid each year.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., first called for the conditions last week in a statement insisting “that not one penny will be coming to Israel from the U.S. unless there is a fundamental change in their military and political positions.”
Sanders called for “an end to indiscriminate bombing which has taken thousands of civilian lives,” the right of displaced Palestinians in Gaza to return home, no long-term Israeli re-occupation of the strip, a freeze on West Bank settlement expansion and a commitment to peace talks for a two-state solution following the war.
Israel’s aerial bombardment and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip has killed approximately 15,000 Palestinians per the Gaza Health Ministry and internally displaced more than 1.7 million of the enclave’s approximately 2.2 million people. Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre that sparked the war killed roughly 1,200 Israelis per the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF. Israeli forces and settlers have also killed more than 200 Palestinians in the West Bank since Oct. 7, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
After leveling most of northern Gaza, Israel dropped leaflets last weekend telling Palestinians to leave Khan Younis in southern Gaza, raising fears of even more displacement and civilian casualties after the ceasefire ends.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., organized a briefing on Monday with senior IDF officials with more than a dozen Senate Democrats, with some raising concerns about the Palestinian civilian casualties and humanitarian situation in Gaza.
“I wanted my colleagues to see exactly where the IDF was and what their plans are moving into the future and what are the next phases that they’re looking at,” Duckworth said on Tuesday.
Ukraine and Indo-Pacific
Duckworth also noted that she’s “concerned” about the timeline for passing both Israel aid and $61 billion worth of military and economic aid for Ukraine.
Ukraine is running out of munitions and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Congress in September that Kyiv would lose the war against Russia’s invasion if the U.S. fails to provide additional aid. The Biden administration has less than $5 billion in drawdown authority to continue arming Kyiv from U.S. stockpiles.
Johnson, the new House speaker who has previously voted against Ukraine assistance, expressed confidence on Monday that Congress will pass both Ukraine and Israel aid. Still, numerous members in his caucus have expressed opposition to combining both in one package.
“Of course, we can’t allow Vladimir Putin to march through Europe,” said Johnson. “And we understand the necessity of assisting there. What we’ve said is that if there is to be additional assistance to Ukraine — which most members of Congress believe is important — we have to also work on changing our own border policy.”
The House passed 226-196 a stand-alone Israel aid bill based on Biden’s supplemental request earlier this month, but Senate Democrats ignored it because it added $14.3 billion in cuts to the Internal Revenue Service.
Meanwhile Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and several other Republicans on the China Committee he chairs are pushing for a $12 billion plus-up the Indo-Pacific portion of Biden’s request.
The White House supplemental asked for $2 billion on Foreign Military Financing for Indo-Pacific allies, including Taiwan, and $3.4 billion to expand the submarine-industrial base to help implement the trilateral AUKUS agreement with Australia and Britain.
“To appropriately meet the urgency of the [Chinese Communist Party] threat, we need to go further than the supplemental request,” Gallagher wrote to Johnson, Schumer and McConnell. “The Indo-Pacific, our priority theater, must not be an afterthought.”
Gallagher’s proposal would add another $2 billion to backfill U.S. weapons sent to Taiwan under presidential drawdown authority and another $10 billion for munitions and military construction.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.