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House votes to require delivery of bombs to Israel in GOP-led rebuke of Biden policies

House votes to require delivery of bombs to Israel in GOP-led rebuke of Biden policies
1 month 1 week 1 day ago Thursday, May 16 2024 May 16, 2024 May 16, 2024 8:28 PM May 16, 2024 in News - AP National
Source: APnews.com
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., joined at left by House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., speak to reporters about President Joe Biden pausing a shipment of bombs to Israel, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, May 16, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House delivered a rebuke to President Joe Biden Thursday for pausing a shipment of bombs to Israel, passing legislation that seeks to force the weapons transfer as Republicans worked to highlight Democratic divisions over the Israel-Hamas war.

Seeking to discourage Israel from its offensive on the crowded southern Gaza city of Rafah, the Biden administration this month put on hold a weapons shipment of 3,500 bombs — some as large as 2,000 pounds — that are capable of killing hundreds in populated areas. Republicans were outraged, accusing Biden of abandoning the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Debate over the bill, rushed to the House floor by GOP leadership this week, showed Washington's deeply fractured outlook on the Israel-Hamas war. The White House and Democratic leadership scrambled to rally support from a House caucus that ranges from moderates frustrated that the president would allow any daylight between the U.S. and Israel to progressives outraged that he is still sending any weapons at all.

The bill passed comfortably 224-187 as 16 Democrats joined with most Republicans to vote in favor. Three Republicans voted against it.

On the right, Republicans said the president had no business chiding Israel for how it uses the U.S.-manufactured weapons that are instrumental in its war against Hamas. They have not been satisfied with the Biden administration moving forward this week on a new $1 billion sale to Israel of tank ammunition, tactical vehicles and mortar rounds.

"We're beyond frustrated," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said. "I don't think we should tell the Israelis how to conduct their military campaign, period."

The House bill condemns Biden for initiating the pause on the bomb shipment and would withhold funding for the State Department, Department of Defense and the National Security Council until the delivery is made.

The White House has said Biden would veto the bill if it passes Congress, and the Democratic-led Senate seems certain to reject it.

"It's not going anywhere," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said earlier this week.

Republicans were undeterred. Appearing on the Capitol steps ahead of voting Thursday morning, House Republican leaders argued that passage of the bill in the House would build pressure on Schumer and Biden.

"It is President Biden and Senator Schumer himself who are standing in the way of getting Israel the resources it desperately needs to defend itself," Speaker Mike Johnson said.

Biden placed the hold on the transfer of the bombs this month over concerns the weapons could inflict massive casualties in Rafah and to deter Israel from the attack.

Over 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed as Israel tries to eliminate Hamas in retaliation for its Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,200 people in Israel and took about 250 more captive. Hundreds of thousands of people could be at risk of death if Israel attacks Rafah, the United Nations humanitarian aid agency has warned, because so many have fled there for safety.

The heavy toll of the Israeli campaign has prompted intense protests on the left, including on university campuses nationwide and some aimed directly at Biden. In a rare scene on the Capitol steps Thursday, a group of about two dozen House aides gathered just as lawmakers were entering the chamber to vote and displayed a banner that read, "Your staff demands you save Rafah."

At the same time, a group of moderate Democrats in Congress have expressed almost unconditional support for Israel. Roughly two dozen House Democrats last week signed onto a letter to the Biden administration saying they were "deeply concerned about the message" sent by pausing the bomb shipment.

Eager to tamp down the number from Biden's own party who would side with Republicans on the vote, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and deputy national security adviser Jon Finer got on the phone this week with Democratic lawmakers who could possibly defect.

Among their arguments, according to an administration official with knowledge of their conversations and granted anonymity to discuss them, was that the legislation would constrain the president's foreign policy powers, particularly his ability to adjust security aid as needed. Sullivan and Finer also noted in these discussions that what Biden did — pausing aid in order to influence Israel's actions — was similar to President Ronald Reagan's decision in 1982 to halt military aid to Israel amid its invasion of Lebanon.

National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said the legislation was intended to "score political points, not help Israel."

"President Biden will take a back seat to no one on his support for Israel and will ensure that Israel has everything it needs to defeat Hamas," she said. "President Biden is also strongly on the record for the protection of innocent civilians. Most Americans agree on both these points, Israel has a right and obligation to protect themselves, but they must do so while avoiding civilian casualties."

House Democratic leadership also worked hard to convince rank-and-file lawmakers to vote against the bill.

"The legislation on the floor today is not a serious effort to strengthen the special relationship between the United States and Israel," said House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

He added that he supported the effort to "decisively" defeat Hamas while also advocating for a goal of "Israel living in safety and security side by side with a demilitarized Palestinian state that allows for dignity and self-determination amongst the Palestinian people."

With the general election campaign coming into focus, the speaker has mostly turned to advancing partisan bills, including legislation on immigration, local policing and antisemitism, that are intended to force Democrats into taking difficult votes.

"It's being done to score cheap political points," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat who signed onto the letter criticizing the pause, but voted against the bill. She added that it would potentially defund U.S. national security programs.

As an alternative, Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a separate bill Thursday with some bipartisan backing that would require the president to notify Congress before holding the delivery of defensive weapons to Israel and allow Congress to override the hold.

Still, the 16 Democrats who voted for the bill showed a willingness to buck the president. The group consisted of both lawmakers vying for reelection in swing districts and those who are staunch supporters of Israel.

"The administration has been wavering so I'm going to vote for the bill when it comes to the floor," Rep. Ritchie Torres, a New York Democrat, said ahead of the vote.

Another Democrat who voted for the bill, Rep. Jared Moskowitz of Florida, said this week he also considered the messages being sent to the Jewish community in the United States.

"My community right now is worried," he said. "Things don't happen in a vacuum."

Historically, the U.S. has sent enormous amounts of weaponry to Israel, and it has only accelerated those shipments after the Oct. 7 attack. But some progressives are pushing for an end to that relationship as they argue that Israel's campaign into Gaza amounts to genocide — a characterization that the Biden administration has rejected.

"My fear is that our government and us as citizens, as taxpayers, we are going to be complicit in genocide," said Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat. "And that goes against everything we value as a nation."

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Associated Press writer Farnoush Amiri contributed.

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