Lawmakers try to seal $225M aid package for Israel
WASHINGTON Democratic and Republican members of Congress scrambled Tuesday to seal a $225 million boost to Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system before they break this week for a month-long recess.
As the Gaza war escalates, Israel is proving to be among the few subjects uniting lawmakers. Members of both parties have introduced legislation backing the Jewish state, condemning the Palestinian militant group Hamas and seeking a tougher Iran policy. Iron Dome is the priority, but the House and Senate are at odds over process.
No money for Israel will be included in a larger House spending bill focused on border security, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., the Appropriations Committee chairman, said Tuesday. He said military support for Israel would be addressed separately, though not necessarily this week. That means the effort could slip to September.
The GOP-led House's approach is at odds with the Democratic-controlled Senate, which wants the Iron Dome money approved with border security and wildfire assistance in a single package before lawmakers take their break on Thursday or Friday.
Israel escalated its operations against Hamas on Tuesday as the conflict entered its fourth week. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a "prolonged" campaign.
Amid a daily barrage of Palestinian rocket fire, Iron Dome has been credited with knocking hundreds out of the sky. Even as the Obama administration presses for a cease-fire, it has backed Israel's request to replenish its missile defense stockpiles while it is fighting, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking Congress to approve the measure.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he supported Hagel's request because Iron Dome "has afforded Israel some protection from indiscriminate rockets."
He has proposed a separate measure, which Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signaled he might be open to.
But McConnell criticized efforts that he said would impose a cease-fire on Israel that doesn't meet its military objectives and rewards Hamas for a "campaign of terror."
"I support any effort which brings this campaign to an end in a manner that increases Israel's security," McConnell said Tuesday. "That means that Hamas cannot be left with a large stockpile of missiles and rockets, cannot be left with infiltration tunnels — they must be destroyed. Hamas cannot be allowed to aggressively rest, refit and build up weapons stockpiles."
House Republican aides said the Senate could deal with the issue as a freestanding bill that the House would easily approve.
"They'll be strong bipartisan support for Iron Dome. There always has been in situation like this," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
While the administration and lawmakers agree on providing missile defense, other actions in Congress are more contentious.
Until Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz was hindering the appointment of several U.S. ambassadors to key allies by vowing to block all State Department nominees awaiting confirmation.
The Texas Republican said he was releasing his holds after the Federal Aviation Administration answered his questions about its 36-hour ban last week on U.S. airline flights to Israel. Cruz had claimed the prohibition was an "economic boycott" of Israel to pressure it into a cease-fire with Hamas.
In a weekend call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama stressed the need for an "immediate, unconditional, humanitarian cease-fire." Obama, a White House statement said, suggested larger questions would then come later.
Such talk has alarmed lawmakers of both parties.
In a letter last week to Obama, Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said a cease-fire must eliminate Hamas' ability to fire rockets and place no restrictions on the Jewish state.
"Israel must be allowed to take any actions necessary to remove those threats," the senators wrote, stating a position that presaged by two days the Israeli government's unanimous rejection of Secretary of State John Kerry's cease-fire proposal.
Over days of intense diplomacy, Kerry has tried to secure commitments from both sides that would lead to peace. Congress, by contrast, has focused its energies on Palestinian actions and critics of Israel.
Cardin and Graham joined three Republican senators — Marco Rubio of Florida, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — in sending a sharply worded letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after he described Israel's military operations as an "atrocious action."
House Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Ted Deutch, D-Fla., have a resolution condemning Hamas' use of human shields. Cruz and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., followed Monday in the Senate.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., formerly the bane of the Israel lobby for suggesting a U.S. aid cutoff, has said no one should question Israel's actions in a time of war.