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

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

House Speaker Mike Johnson
Sipa USA
By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Monday, November 27, 2023

Happy Cyber Monday! American consumers are expected to spend a record $12 billion shopping online today, providing more evidence of the economy’s resilience. Congress is also back in session this week, and with federal funding extended into early 2024, we know there won’t be a pre-Christmas government shutdown, but that doesn’t mean December will be drama-free. Lawmakers will have to deal with several pressing issues over the next few weeks. Here’s an update on what’s ahead.

Congress Will Need a ‘Holiday Miracle’ to Finish Its Work This Year

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.

Quote of the Day

“There’s nothing about the December holidays that is going to produce magic in the House dynamic right now. They’re chaotically divided; they’re dysfunctional. The basic problem is: There is a group of Republicans who are more interested in throwing grenades than governing. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, speaking to The Hill about the battle over government spending that is expected to play out in the new year. House conservatives warn that they won’t go along with another bipartisan deal on the 2024 budget and instead will insist on slashing spending below the levels agreed to by former speaker Kevin McCarthy. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says that the deep spending cuts House Republicans want to see will go nowhere in the upper chamber.

Trump Dredges Up the Possibility of Again Pursuing Obamacare Repeal

Former president Donald Trump indicated over the holiday weekend that he still has his sights set on a familiar old target: Obamacare.

In a post on social media Saturday, Trump, the polling frontrunner in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, suggested that he would seek to take another shot at replacing the 2010 Affordable Care Act if elected to another term.

“The cost of Obamacare is out of control, plus, it’s not good Healthcare. I’m seriously looking at alternatives," Trump wrote. “We had a couple of Republican Senators who campaigned for 6 years against it, and then raised their hands not to terminate it. It was a low point for the Republican Party, but we should never give up!”

Why it matters: Trump is dredging up an issue that Republicans have dropped as a political loser after multiple failed efforts to roll back the Obama-era law. While Trump’s comment about “seriously looking at alternatives” is essentially meaningless at the moment, his post could give President Joe Biden and Democrats a cudgel to use against him and the GOP.

The ACA has grown in popularity, and Sahil Kapur of NBC News notes that Republicans are vulnerable on healthcare more generally, with a September poll showing that voters trust Democrats over Republicans on the issue by a 45-22 margin that contrasts with perceptions of the parties on the economy, immigration and crime.

Biden took aim at Trump Monday without mentioning him by name. “My predecessor has once again — God love him — called for cuts that could rip away health insurance for tens of millions of Americans in Medicaid. They just don’t give up,” Biden said at a meeting on strengthening supply chains. “But guess what? We won’t let these things happen.”

Biden also criticized Republicans for seeking to roll back his Inflation Reduction Act, which cut the cost diabetic patients pay for insulin and capped out-of-pocket drug expenses while also allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices for the first time.

The Biden campaign also hit back at Trump on Monday, saying that 40 million people – more than 1 in 10 Americans – are covered today because of the law that Trump is threatening to repeal. “He was one vote away from getting it done when he was president – and we should take him at his word that he’ll try to do it again,” Biden-Harris 2024 spokesperson Ammar Moussa said in a statement. “Donald Trump’s America is one where millions of people lose their health insurance and seniors and families across the country face exorbitant costs just to stay healthy. Those are the stakes next November.”

Could Republicans actually do it? Trump is replaying his greatest misses here and his post shows that he still harbors deep resentment toward former Sen. John McCain, who famously gave a thumbs-down to Republicans’ last effort to repeal Obamacare, and to Barack Obama.

The chances of repealing Obamacare at this point might appear slim to nonexistent, much like the chances of Trump enacting a policy that would be both and cheaper. At a minimum, a repeal would require Republicans to win the White House and control both chambers of Congress. But left-leaning New York magazine political columnist Jonathan Chait writes that Trump and Republicans just might have a shot depending on the 2024 election outcome: “It might seem hard to believe that Republicans would reprise the most politically calamitous episode of the Trump presidency,” he writes. “But there are several reasons why they might try again and why it could even work.”

Republicans have a good chance at winning control of the Senate next year, and if they can hold the House and win the White House, repealing Obamacare could once again be high on their agenda, Chait says: “Obamacare is popular, and cutting it would risk another white-hot political backlash. But politicians run for office so they can do things. And cutting or eliminating Obamacare is a thing nearly every Republican would desperately like to do.”

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