Democrats rally against GOP Israel bill as leaders crack whip

Democrats are rallying to oppose a House GOP effort meant to expose their divisions on Israel as the party moves to align with President Biden, who has threatened to veto the measure, and their own leaders who are whipping against it.

The Democrats speaking out say they are weary of Republicans using Israel as a political cudgel, vowing to oppose a measure that aims to force the delivery of certain arms to Israel that Biden is withholding.

“I will speak for myself as an American Jew: I am tired of the Republicans using Israel and antisemitism as a political pawn. We are not political pawns,” said Rep. Dan Goldman, a prominent Jewish Democrat from New York.

“It is bad for Israel if the Congress is divided; it is bad for Israel — it’s bad for Jews — if there’s these ‘gotcha’ political resolutions about antisemitism. And I’m sick and tired of being used as a political pawn by the Republicans.”

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), another vocal Israel ally, delivered a similar message about the GOP measure and Biden’s decision to pause certain arms, an effort intended to dissuade Israeli leaders from advancing on Rafah, where more than a million Palestinian refugees have gathered amid Israel’s war with Hamas.

The administration “was wrong to withhold the shipment” of weapons, he said. But Biden has also committed to sticking by Israel’s side until Hamas is defeated — an effort that will be compromised by the Republican bill, Schneider added.

“President Biden has been clear: Israel has to defeat Hamas, but has to do it in such a way that not only secures Israel’s borders, but creates a path to secure Israel’s future and the future for all people in the region,” Schneider said. “And this bill moves us backwards, not forwards.”

Some Democrats, to be sure, are expected to support the legislation, which calls for reversing Biden’s hold on the delivery of some weapons to Israel and condemns the administration for instituting the pause.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) on Wednesday said he is “leaning” toward voting for the bill but is “still thinking about it.” And Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio) told The Hill on Thursday that he’ll support the legislation.

But the number of lawmakers joining that pair is poised to be far fewer than the double-digit figure initially anticipated, a decrease fueled by Biden’s veto threat; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) announcement that the upper chamber won’t consider the House bill; House Democratic leaders whipping against the measure; and news this week that, coinciding with the freeze of certain weapons, the Biden administration plans to move forward with a $1 billion arms deal with Israel.

Last week, 26 House Democrats penned a letter to national security adviser Jake Sullivan that said they were “deeply concerned” with the message the administration was sending to Hamas and other Iranian-backed terrorist proxies through its weapons hold.

“With democracy under assault around the world, we cannot undermine our ally Israel, especially in her greatest hour of need,” the Democrats wrote.

But a handful of those pro-Israel signees have since come out against the legislation — like Schneider — or cast doubt on its significance. That opposition has dealt a blow to GOP leaders who have relentlessly tried to fracture Democrats over the Israel-Hamas war, which has emerged as a divisive matter for the caucus and a key vulnerability for the president heading into the November elections.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.), who represents a Florida district with a high Jewish population, said he is unsure of how he will vote but argued that the bill has “all sorts of problems,” would set “all sorts of terrible precedents,” and is “irrelevant” since the administration said it is moving forward with a $1 billion arms sale for Israel.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), similarly, called the bill “an unserious piece of legislation … that is cynically designed to divide people,” adding that despite her “concerns over [Biden’s] public discussion of the heavy bombs” she is “very confident that the president and U.S.-Israel cooperation has never been more close.”

But, she said, “I need to look through the bill and discuss it with my team and make a decision.”

The topic of funding for Israel has long been contentious in the Democratic caucus, where Israel’s closest allies have urged robust military support for Tel Aviv in the face of opposition from liberals critical of Israel’s track record on human rights.

Those divisions have intensified with the arrival of several Muslim lawmakers on Capitol Hill — including the first Palestinian woman — and Republicans have repeatedly sought to exploit those tensions with proposals defending Israel and condemning antisemitism.

Still, House Democratic leaders are predicting few defections when the bill hits the floor for a vote, saying members will largely unite against the legislation because of its “overly political” nature.

“We understand that there’s different viewpoints within our own caucus on this,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday. “But overwhelmingly House Democrats will reject this overly political bill.”

House Minority Whip Katherine Clarke (D-Mass.) echoed that sentiment Thursday morning, telling The Hill that she expects Democrats to be largely united in opposition to the bill.

The vote is currently scheduled for 4:45 p.m., but could face a delay as hard-line conservatives race back to Washington after attending former President Trump’s hush money trial in Manhattan. With Democrats lining up against the bill and Republicans grappling with a razor-thin majority, GOP leaders will need most of their troops in town to ensure the proposal passes.

While overwhelming Democratic opposition will deprive Republicans of their goal of splitting the caucus, it is all but certain to fuel GOP claims that Democrats and Biden are turning their backs on Israel in its time of need.

“This is a moment where we need, not just the American people but the entire world, need moral clarity. You are either with Israel or you are not,” Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said during a press conference on the House steps Thursday morning. “If Schumer refuses to bring this up for a vote he’ll be telling the world that his party, the Democrats, are no longer willing to stand with our great ally.”

“I don’t think that that is a palatable position for the American people,” he added.

Johnson also pushed back on the Democratic argument that the bill is no longer necessary after the administration informed congressional leaders that it plans to plow ahead with a $1 billion weapons sale for Israel, calling that gesture a “pittance” and “window dressing.”

“That is to try to give him political cover,” Johnson added.

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