Apr 4, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Biden complicates Congress’ calculus on Israel aid

President Biden, wearing a dark gray suit, light blue shirt and blue-and-white striped tie, standing in front of a line of American and Greek flags while the audience takes photos.

President Biden in the East Room of the White House on Thursday. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration's embrace of an "immediate ceasefire" in Gaza and threat of conditions for aid to Israel could shake up the foreign aid vote math on Capitol Hill.

Why it matters: House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is already trying to perform a tenuous balancing act to cobble together the votes for aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan.

  • But Democrats have grown increasingly uneasy with unconditional aid to Israel in recent months as the casualty count in Gaza has risen.

Driving the news: In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, Biden said an "immediate ceasefire" is needed to "protect innocent civilians," Axios' Barak Ravid reported.

  • Biden also stressed that Israel needs to lay out "concrete and measurable steps" for protecting aid workers and addressing the humanitarian crisis — a demand amplified by the recent deaths of seven World Central Kitchen workers.
  • Biden "made clear that U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel's immediate action on these steps," the White House said.

The latest: Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) a Jewish progressive who signed onto Democrats' discharge petition to force a vote on a $95 billion Senate foreign aid bill, lamented in an interview on Thursday that the bill includes "the same old money to Israel."

  • "I don't see that as something that can be included in that package," she told Axios. "I'm not against the defensive weapons ... but, no, I think we should not be contributing more to this destruction of life."
  • Schakowsky added she feels "very strongly" about conditioning aid to Israel and "I think a lot of people … feel that way."
  • Other progressives voiced similar sentiments. "Biden knows the United States has a serious role to play in order for major course correcting to take place," Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) said in a statement.

Zoom in: Schakowsky and Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) are circulating a draft letter addressed to Biden calling to halt weapons transfers to Israel in response to the World Central Kitchen strike.

  • "In light of the recent strike against aid workers and the ever-worsening humanitarian crisis, we believe it is unjustifiable to approve these weapons transfers," they wrote.

The other side: Pro-Israel lawmakers in both parties hit back at Biden's comments.

  • Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.). said he supports minimizing casualties in Gaza and sending aid to Palestinians, but "any attempt to fundamentally undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship will only serve to benefit Hamas."
  • Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) called Biden's remarks "terrible," telling Axios, "Israel has every right to destroy Hamas after the 7 Oct massacre. If someone did that to us, like 9/11, we'd do everything to destroy the threat."

Between the lines: Asked if Biden's comments to Netanyahu make it harder to pass an aid package, a House Republican told Axios, "It does."

  • "His equivocation is more about Democratic politics than good foreign policy," the lawmaker added.

Yes, but: Not every pro-Israel member is pushing back. "I appreciate the president's frustration with Prime Minister Netanyahu," said Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), who plans to advocate for Israel aid on the Hill next week.

  • Schneider argued Israel can both fight Hamas and protect civilians and "it's right that the United States expect, indeed demand, that of Israel."
  • He added lawmakers were "shocked" by the World Central Kitchen incident, which, he said, "draws on a lot of emotions."

What to watch: Johnson has signaled the House will take up aid to Israel and Ukraine when it returns from its Easter recess next week.

  • He will have an enormous lift in getting the two-thirds majority he needs to pass any package, with a group of House Democrats now demanding an additional $9 billion in humanitarian aid to various global hot spots.

The bottom line: "I mean, what other leverage does the United States have? To scold? Bibi doesn't give a damn about scolding," Schakowsky said of U.S. aid to Israel.

  • "That's it, really. That's all we have."
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