Crunch Time for Israel and Ukraine Aid: Can Congress Get It Done?

Crunch Time for Israel and Ukraine Aid: Can Congress Get It Done?

Reuters/Tom Brenner

While lawmakers may have postponed their battle over government funding until after the December holidays thanks to a stopgap funding bill, Congress still must address numerous serious issues in the next three weeks — with the effort to provide billions in aid to Israel and Ukraine coming in at the top of the list.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday that he plans to vote next week on legislation providing aid to both countries, to fulfill a request made by the White House in October. But some Senate Republicans have threatened to delay the vote on Ukraine funding, saying they want to include changes in border and immigration policy in any aid bill.

Before Thanksgiving, a bipartisan group of senators started working on a deal that would combine roughly $105 billion in aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan with changes in border policy, but no firm agreement has yet been reached as lawmakers struggle over how to revise the asylum process for migrants at the southern border.

In a letter to colleagues Sunday, Schumer scolded Republicans for their approach to the issue, charging that they have “injected a decades old, hyper-partisan issue into overwhelmingly bipartisan priorities,” and warned that “purely partisan hard-right demands ... jeopardize the entire national security supplemental package.”

Over in the House, Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters Monday that he is “confident and optimistic” that Congress can provide additional aid for Israel and Ukraine, but also warned that Ukraine aid must include border policy changes.

Claiming that aid for Ukraine is a “priority,” Johnson said that “we can’t allow Vladimir Putin to march through Europe.” However, he added 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.”

Separately, the House has already passed a bill providing $14.3 billion to Israel but tied the aid to cuts in funding for the IRS — an approach rejected by Schumer and not expected to go anywhere in the Senate.

Further complicating matters, some Democrats have started to question Israeli military tactics in Gaza while calling on the Biden administration to impose conditions on U.S. aid, setting up a potential intraparty clash. “The blank check approach must end,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders in a New York Times op-ed last week. “The United States must make clear that while we are friends of Israel, there are conditions to that friendship and that we cannot be complicit in actions that violate international law and our own sense of decency.”

President Joe Biden said Friday that conditional aid was “a worthwhile thought,” but stopped short of endorsing the idea. Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider of Illinois, a staunch supporter of Israel, rejected the proposal, saying that putting conditions on “will move peace further away, threatening both Israeli and Palestinian lives rather than saving them.”

Other issues await: The House and the Senate have passed their own versions of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which now must be reconciled into a single bill. The two sides are largely in agreement as far as spending goes, but the House version includes culture-war issues that may slow things down.

In addition, the must-pass NDAA might be used as a vehicle for all kinds of amendments that lawmakers have been unable to graft onto other bills. Former GOP staffer Aaron Cutler told Roll Call that the 2024 NDAA could be a “proverbial Christmas tree” of a bill that includes provisions related to tax policy and healthcare policy.

Aside from the NDAA, Congress faces any number of other hurdles. Lawmakers face end-of-year deadlines to reauthorize Section 702, a controversial surveillance program, and the Federal Aviation Administration. The Senate is still struggling with how to handle hundreds of military promotions that have been blocked by Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville in protest of Pentagon abortion policies. And the House may need to spend a few days dealing with Rep. George Santos, who faces possible expulsion following the release of a report by the House Ethics Committee that found he violated federal laws.

Time is running short: According to the official congressional calendar, the House is scheduled to be in session for just 12 more days in 2023, with the Senate meeting for just 15 days, including today. While the calendar can always be extended by a few days, the current schedule highlights just how little time is left for lawmakers to make deals on some very heavy issues.

Some observers don’t think Congress will be able to clear its plate. “The days that they are scheduled to be in before the end of the … session is not much time,” G. William Hoagland, of the Bipartisan Policy Center told Roll Call. “I think it would be a holiday miracle if much can get settled, given the hyper partisanship, particularly in the House.”

Pushing the aid package into next year could complicate matters even further by once again linking that funding with the deadlines to pass annual spending bills.