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The Democrats who flipped on Israel aid, and why

The Democrats who flipped on Israel aid, and why

Half the members who signed a letter to Biden in the aftermath of aid worker killings voted for the package anyway

Reporting | Washington Politics

The Senate approved the national security supplemental on Tuesday night, by a vote of 79-18.

The legislation combined the four bills that were approved by the House over the weekend. After months of pushing the Biden administration to do more to pressure Israel to change its conduct in its war in Gaza, Democrats in Congress ultimately approved $26 billion in aid for Israel, including approximately $9 billion in global humanitarian aid (how much would go to Gaza, to be determined).

In the Senate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tried to introduce two amendments — one that would remove all offensive military aid for Israel and another to restore U.S. funding for UNRWA. "What we are doing today is aiding and abetting the destruction of the Palestinian people," he said on the Senate floor Tuesday night.

No Democrats, including some who have raised concerns about Israel’s war, supported Sanders’s effort, saying that they wanted the package to move forward without delay.

In the lead-up to the votes, pushback was more prevalent in the House. Perhaps most notably, on April 5, 39 voting congressional Democrats circulated a letter that urged President Joe Biden to stop sending offensive arms to Israel until an investigation into the strike that killed seven World Central Kitchen staffers was completed.

In addition, the members also urged Biden “to withhold these transfers if Israel fails to sufficiently mitigate harm to innocent civilians in Gaza, including aid workers, and if it fails to facilitate — or arbitrarily denies or restricts — the transport and delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza.”

On Saturday, 37 Democrats (along with 21 Republicans) voted against the Israel aid bill — a significant total given the history of bipartisan support for Israel in Congress. But the large majority of the caucus, 173 in total, voted to advance it (3 Democrats did not vote).

Of those in support, 20 of the members had signed that letter to Biden earlier this month.

Securing another tranche of aid for Ukraine has been a long-term policy priority for the party, and some Democrats may have been willing to swallow more aid for Israel as a price for accomplishing that goal. But the vote over the weekend gave Democrats an opportunity to follow through on their rhetoric and vote against sending Israel more military aid without compromising any other piece of legislation.

But many Democrats nonetheless retreated from the line they had set earlier this month. Signs of a shift in rhetoric from some of these members came in the aftermath of Iran’s strikes on Israel on April 13.

“Iran is a terrorist nation. They have just launched a disproportionate terrorist attack against our ally Israel. The free world and the United States will stand against this terrorist nation and the tyranny that it promotes,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) on X on the night of the attacks. “We must pass Biden’s supplemental appropriation funding now that covers Israel, Ukraine, and Gaza among others.” This followed her signing of the April 5 letter urging Biden to hold aid.

Others stayed noticeably quiet following the exchange of attacks between Iran and Israel, but their calculus on aiding Israel clearly changed between April 5 and last weekend.

“I will always support our allies against enemy attacks — especially with potential nuclear threats. Iran’s attacks against Israel necessitated that we approve the emergency aid package without delay,” Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C) told RS on Tuesday. “I additionally chose to do so because it provides for over $9 billion in humanitarian aid. I trust that President Biden will ensure this aid is dispensed to those most severely impacted by this conflict.”

Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), told RS that the Iran attacks changed her calculus as well. “Earlier this month, I signed a letter asking President Biden to withhold offensive weapons until there was an investigation into the airstrike that resulted in the death of seven World Central Kitchen humanitarian aid workers. I still maintain that any funding the United States provides to our allies must be used in accordance with international law,” she said.

“The situation changed when Iran launched an attack against Israel and further escalated tensions in the region," she added. "Providing aid to our allies around the world, including Israel, is of vital importance to our national security. This does not negate the need for assurances of how aid will be used. The national security supplemental I voted for last week ensures Israel has the resources to combat Hamas and provides crucial humanitarian aid to vulnerable people around the world, including the civilians in Gaza. We can and must continue to do both."

Six of the 20 signatories who eventually supported the bill have not issued public statements about their votes, including Reps. Jackson Lee, Adams, and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.), and Robert Garcia (D-Calif.)

Four others, including Pelosi, as well as Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), and Hayes (D-Conn.) released statements celebrating the passage of the series of national security bills without explicitly explaining or justifying their positions on Israel aid. Pelosi’s office published a transcript of her floor speech on Ukraine aid but did not mention Israel.

“Speaker Pelosi has a long record of strong support for Israel and its right to defend itself. Speaker Pelosi signed the April 5 letter to call for a pause on offensive weapons transfers until there was an independent investigation into the attack on the World Central Kitchen heroes, steps the administration has taken and is taking,” a spokesman for Pelosi told RS, explaining her vote. “Speaker Pelosi’s position is fully consistent with her vote in favor of the Israel Security Supplemental Appropriations Act.”

Three other Democrats — Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), and Kevin Mullin (D-Calif.) issued short statements emphasizing the $9 billion in humanitarian aid, some of which will go to Gaza — but not mentioning or explaining their support for the military assistance to Israel.

Besides Adams, Hayes, and Pelosi, none of the other members who did not clearly state their rationale for the vote responded to requests for comment.

Avoiding an explanation of controversial votes is nothing new for Democrats.

“The GOP mentioned the country in the title of its press release and sixteen times in its summary of the bill. But the House and Senate Democrats’ press releases don’t mention Israel at all,” Stephen Semler noted in Jacobin when Congress passed a $1.2 trillion funding bill that included almost $4 billion in military assistance for Israel and cut off all funding for UNRWA, the most important supplier of humanitarian aid in Gaza. “Clearly, Democratic elected officials were afraid to cop to the contents of the bill.”

The other six members who voted for the aid package explained their decisions more clearly to the public.

Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) explicitly criticized the inclusion of funds that Israel could use for offensive weapons, but said that the defensive aid for Israel and the humanitarian aid present in the bill were necessary.

“While I have deep concerns about the bill that includes additional security assistance to Israel, the funding in this bill is urgently needed to address the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” said Schakowsky. "I am concerned by the inclusion of $3.5 billion in funding for Israel that could be used to obtain offensive weapons. While this funding will not be disbursed to Israel for several years, I reiterate my calls for the U.S. to halt all offensive weapons transfers to Israel until and unless it can be confirmed that U.S. weapons are being used in accordance with domestic and international law and that the Israeli government is not impeding the entry of U.S. humanitarian aid into Gaza.”

“While I’m deeply concerned about further military assistance to Israel, I couldn’t in good conscience vote against this lifesaving humanitarian assistance when millions of people around the world are suffering,” added Jacobs.

Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), Veronica Escobar (D-N.Y.), Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.), and Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) all supported the measure but urged Biden to keep pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu to follow international law and protect civilians during the war. Stansbury paired her statement on the supplemental’s package with a letter she wrote to Biden saying that she understands “that the funding provided in the supplemental is defensive in nature and will not be used to support offensive weapons in Gaza.” The legislation earmarks approximately $3.5 billion for buying “advanced weapons systems.”

Escobar said that her “support for the Israel package comes with [her] continued calls on the administration to use its leverage with Israel to allow more life-saving humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.”

"I continue to have concerns with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s lack of a strategy to protect innocent civilians and bring this war to a swift end. I will continue to press for increased accountability and call for the immediate return of all hostages," added Barragán. "Today, it was necessary to prioritize our national security, deliver critical humanitarian aid to where it is needed most, and ensure America continues to stand with our democratic allies around the world.”

Democrats who opposed the measure on Saturday made the case that taking the rare opportunity to register clear, widespread opposition to weapons packages like this one is how opponents of funding Israel’s war can provide Biden with the necessary leverage to push Netanyahu.

“I hope this vote will show the world that there is a really significant segment of the United States that doesn’t want to see expanded and widening wars,” Rep. Greg Casar told the New York Times before the vote.

Following the vote, a group of 19 Democrats who voted against the aid issued a statement stating, in part: “Today is, in many ways, Congress’ first official vote where we can weigh in on the direction of this war. If Congress votes to continue to supply offensive military aid, we make ourselves complicit in this tragedy.”

Editor's note: This story previously said that Rep. Nanette Barragán had not issued a public statement. It has been corrected to include Rep. Barragán's statement.

Shutterstock/mark reinstein

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