June 25, 2024

The brutal attacks against Israeli civilians outside the Gaza Strip is quickly shifting the political calculus on defense funding and aid to Ukraine, say congressional aides.

Senate defense hawks say the bloody turn of events in Israel will put pressure on isolationists within the GOP to approve an emergency defense spending package before Thanksgiving, predicting it will include money for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan.

They also predict it will put pressure on the Republican-controlled House to pass the defense authorization and appropriations bills before the end of the year.

The attacks by Hamas militants and the devastating retaliatory strikes by Israeli defense forces come at an awkward moment for Congress, when the Senate is in recess and the House is in the midst of a race to elect the next Speaker.

A group of Democratic and Republican senators in leadership and on the Senate Foreign Relations, Intelligence, Armed Services and Appropriations committees received an unclassified phone briefing from administration officials Sunday evening, but rank-and-file senators are still waiting for information about when they will be briefed by the State and Defense departments.

Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who lost his gavel last week, failed on two separate occasions to pass a Defense spending bill because of opposition from Democrats and a few hard-line Republicans. It will be harder, in the wake of what happened in Israel, to justify holding up such legislation, congressional aides predicted.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who has emerged as Congress’s leading advocate to fund the war in Ukraine, wasted little time in pointing out what he sees as the new political dynamic underlying the defense debate in Washington.

“Congress has the opportunity this fall to provide emergency appropriations to the Defense Department so that it can assist partners like Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, as well as invest in our own military capabilities,” the GOP leader wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Monday afternoon.

He said an emergency Defense spending package should “include significant replenishment funding” to “expand and modernize our own weapons inventories.”

He called for funding to expand the production of “critical munitions,” long-range weapons and other “essential defenses technologies here in America.”

Congressional aides say that Israel has the defense resources it needs to wage a counterattack into Gaza over the next few weeks and can tap into more than $5 billion in Pentagon drawdown authority. But they also say Israel will need an infusion of money from Congress later this fall.

“Republicans are now talking tough on national security and standing with Israel, and a lot of Republicans still support Ukraine, and this gives them political cover to vote for Ukraine aid and support for Israel,” one GOP aide said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is traveling this week to China, South Korea and Japan, announced after the Sunday briefing that the Biden administration is “surging support to Israel,” but congressional aides say more will be done in the weeks ahead.

One Senate aide said “there’s nothing immediately necessary because the Israelis keep pretty good stocks” of armaments.

“My guess they are going to roll” money for Israel’s defense into a national security funding package for Ukraine and Taiwan, the aide said, adding that the rapidly escalating violence in and around Gaza will “accelerate” the debate.

A congressional aide says the Pentagon still has $5.5 billion in drawdown authority to fund the war in Ukraine but some of that will likely now go to Israel to fulfill its national security needs as it tries to eliminate Hamas militants in Gaza and recover Israeli hostages.

The aide said the most likely path forward is to combine funding for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan into one major national security package.

The aide added that Israel will need more interceptors for its Iron Dome air defense network as well as artillery and long-range precision guided munitions.

Most of the strikes the Israel Defense Forces are waging on Gaza are being carried out by Joint Direct Attack Munitions and small-diameter bombs, two weapons also in high demand in Ukraine.

There’s strong momentum among Senate Republicans to include enough funding for Ukraine to cover its military needs through the 2024 U.S. election, which is projected to cost more than $60 billion.

President Biden’s request for $24 billion in new money for Ukraine — which the administration delivered to Congress in August — was to cover only the final three months of this year.

Some Republicans in Congress, however, are calling on diverting military funding for Ukraine to Israel instead.

“Israel is facing existential threat. Any funding for Ukraine should be redirected to Israel immediately,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) argued Monday that aid for Israel will be easier to approve because Congress passed legislation in December 2020 authorizing a minimum of $3.3 billion in aid to Israel through 2028.

But McConnell sought Monday to frame the terror attacks in Israel and the war in Ukraine as related and vital national security interests.

“The world has once again seen the face of evil. Those blessed to live in the democratic West must understand that this barbarism, like that we have witnessed in Russia’s war against Ukraine, threatens all of us. And the civilized world must offer Israel more than rhetorical solidarity,” he wrote in The Journal.

Aides and experts say the attacks on Israel will complicate the Biden administration’s diplomatic strategy toward Iran, especially efforts to revive elements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement that former President Obama signed with Iran and former President Trump later scrapped.

McConnell called Monday for the West to reimpose “extensive multilateral sanctions on Tehran” and deny Iranian planes overflight rights. He also called on Western allies to impound shipping vessels used by Iran to circumvent sanctions and to close banks with access to the West.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an outspoken defense hawk, said the Biden administration “should cease all engagement with Iran.”

Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Biden administration will continue to negotiate with Iran but that getting anything approved by Congress will be virtually impossible.

“I think the Biden administration has made a covert understanding with Iran for the singular purpose of preserving some portion of the deal it thinks is important,” she said of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, which the Trump administration withdrew from.

She predicted the Biden administration will continue to pursue diplomacy with Iran to advance what it views as U.S. national security interests in the region.

She said the administration already knew that there was no chance of getting a revised Iran nuclear deal through Congress even before the attacks outside Gaza.

Pletka also said the attacks will likely impact the Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate a security agreement with Saudi Arabia in return for Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel.

“I might have said this wouldn’t have changed things had the Saudis not acted as they had. The Saudis wanted to party like it was 1967 again, apparently,” she said, referring to the Six-Day War in 1967 when a coalition of Arab countries fought Israel.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia said in a statement Saturday that it had warned Israel of “the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continued occupation and deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights.”

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