House passes GOP bill to undo Biden’s weapons freeze to Israel

House passes GOP bill to undo Biden’s weapons freeze to Israel

The House approved a bill Thursday to reverse President Biden’s pause on some weapons shipments to Israel, a formal admonishment of the administration’s approach to the war in the Middle East that narrowly divided Democrats, who have struggled to unify as the controversial conflict drags on.

The bill — which cleared the chamber in a 224-187 vote — is expected to go nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where party leaders are vowing not to consider it at all. Still, the proposal acted to unite House Republicans — who have been fiercely divided over other issues, like government funding and aid to Ukraine — while splintering a handful of pro-Israel Democrats away from Biden and other party leaders, who had urged their troops to rally behind the president by opposing the measure.

Most did just that, and the list included a number of prominent Jewish Democrats who have sided with Republicans on other controversial bills related to Israel in recent months. Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), for example, had condemned Biden’s weapons hold but voted against the legislation Thursday, hammering the GOP-led proposal as a setback to Israel’s defense in the region and standing in the world.

But Republican leaders, nonetheless, viewed the legislation as essential to showcase their displeasure with Biden’s handling of the war and put Democrats on the record as the high-profile conflict emerges as a key weak spot for the president’s reelection bid.

“We want the president to hear this loud and clear: He said just not long ago that we had to have ironclad support for Israel. Well, that’s what he previously proclaimed, but his actions are doing exactly the opposite,” Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said Thursday. “This is a catastrophic decision with global implications. It is obviously being done as a political calculation. And we cannot let this stand.”

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.)
Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.)

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) addresses reporters during a press conference May 16, 2024, to discuss the Israel Security Assistance Support Act prior to the vote. (Greg Nash)

The GOP effort against Biden cropped up after the president halted the shipment of some 3,500 heavy bombs to Israel, a move meant to dissuade Jerusalem from launching a large-scale offensive in Rafah, which U.S. officials and other countries have strongly urged against. Adding to the pressure, Biden last week warned that he would stop sending additional offensive weapons — including bombs and artillery shells — to Israel if its forces invade Rafah.

That posture sparked sharp criticism from Republicans, who accused the administration of turning its back on Israel during the U.S. ally’s time of need. Some pro-Israel Democrats joined that chorus of criticism, and 26 of them wrote a letter last week to national security adviser Jake Sullivan that said they were “deeply concerned” about the message the pause sent to the world, particularly to Israel’s adversaries in the volatile region.

In the end, however, only 16 Democrats supported the measure, with the majority of the caucus siding with Biden. Boosting that opposition, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had said his chamber will not take up the measure, and Democratic leaders whipped against the bill, framing the legislation as a petty political gambit.

“The legislation on the floor today is not a serious effort to strengthen the special relationship between the United States and Israel — period, full stop,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said shortly before the vote.

The outcome was a departure from previous Israel-related measures that have come to the floor since the war broke out, most of which fractured Democrats much more profoundly, pitting staunchly pro-Israel lawmakers against progressives concerned about the mounting number of civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip.

“Let me be clear — it is wrong to withhold even just one shipment of weapons to Israel as it fights an existential, multipronged war,” Schneider, who signed last week’s letter to Sullivan, said on the House floor Thursday. “It is OK for friends to disagree, but we must not send mixed signals to Israel’s enemy about U.S. support for the mission to end Hamas’s reign of terror over Gaza, to eliminate the threat to Israel, and to bring the hostages home.”

“Sadly, Speaker Johnson’s approach is different,” he continued. “He drafted a partisan bill with no path forward.”

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.)
Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.)

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) are seen during a statue unveiling ceremony of Daisy Bates in Statuary Hall of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 8, 2024. (Greg Nash)

Some pro-Israel Democrats, meanwhile, also argued that the GOP-led resolution was moot after news broke this week that the Biden administration was moving forward with a $1 billion arms sale to Israel, a sign that the U.S. is not wavering on support for its embattled ally.

“It’s irrelevant now,” Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) said Wednesday. “There’s no pause.”

Johnson, however, rejected that argument as “pittance,” “window dressing” and an attempt by Democrats “to try to give [Biden] political cover.”

Still others questioned the constitutionality of the Republicans’ bill, noting that the executive branch — not Congress — typically has the power to dictate U.S. foreign policy.

“This bill has zero impact on anything that is going on in Israel, and instead is just [being] used by the Republicans as a political weapon,” said Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), another prominent Jewish lawmaker.

The GOP bill marks the latest Israel-related measure to clear the House since Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Oct. 7 — a concerted effort by Republicans to show support for Israel and put a spotlight on the sharp Democratic divisions that have come into clear focus since the conflict unfolded.

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The war has intensified a long-running dispute within the Democratic Caucus between pro-Israel Democrats, who have sought to support the Middle Eastern ally at every turn, and progressives up in arms over the leadership of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s track record on human rights and, now, the growing civilian casualties in Gaza.

In the lead-up to Thursday’s vote, Republicans made clear that they would use the outcome to highlight those divisions — and use the vote in future attacks on Democrats.

“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,” Johnson said. “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.”

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