House Speaker Mike Johnson leaves his office at the U.S. Capitol, Nov. 1, 2023. Credit: Francis Chung/Politico/AP
(CNN) -- The House of Representatives' scramble to send $14 billion in emergency aid to Israel is underscoring the political rifts that make the United States seem like a divided superpower, unable to even rush to help a friend who believes he is waging an existential war.
GOP leaders in the House of Representatives said they plan to vote on the package on Thursday, but such is the uncertainty in the GOP's chaotic majority that there is no certain timetable. And the country's political schisms and fractured foreign policy consensus increasingly threaten to cripple the government and hamper U.S. goals abroad.
But House GOP Leader Tom Emmer and House Leader Steve Scalise said they expect to pass the package later in the day.
It shouldn't be that hard.
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For years, a vote on aid to Israel might have been one of the least controversial measures in the House of Representatives all year. But delays in the passage of the measure, the fragile balance of power in Washington and the bipartisan wrangling over the new war in the Middle East show that there is no longer an easy vote.
The uproar around this issue centers largely on newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson's decision to pay for the $14.300 billion in aid to Israel with an equivalent amount of cuts from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) budget. This is popular among conservatives, but it means that many Democrats will vote against what they see as a political maneuver.
The package for Israel is also being dragged into the political mud because President Joe Biden decided to include it in a much broader request that includes the next tranche of weapons and ammunition for Ukraine. Johnson's group opposes some aspects of the request for more than $100 billion in funding. And while the speaker of the House of Representatives introduces a bill on Israel on his own, the Senate could include aid to Ukraine and return it to the lower house, further delaying the shipment of U.S. aid to Israel amid its war against Hamas.
Johnson faces the same nasty choices as McCarthy
The debate is revealing multiple subplots of national politics a year before the next election. And it's painting exactly the kind of picture of American dysfunction that adversaries like China and Russia take advantage of in their attempts to weaken U.S. power.
Johnson's strategy shows how a far-right Republican Party conference is willing to play hardline politics even on issues that have a critical global impact. His decision to include cuts to the IRS also makes clear that, like his predecessor Kevin McCarthy, the Louisiana Republican cannot guarantee a functioning GOP majority without making concessions to his more hardline members. But these moves are unlikely to be accepted by the Democratic-led White House or Senate, so they are ultimately futile. For example, Biden has already vowed to veto the current House bill in the unlikely event that it gets his hands on it. But Johnson is pressing ahead, which already raises the possibility that he is being led by extremist elements in his party and not the other way around.
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The speaker of the House of Representatives could emerge stronger if he manages to pass the bill into law without further delay. But it also runs the risk of reaching a position that breaks its authority before it has built an effective political base. While his IRS tactic might garner enough GOP votes to pass the law, it won't change the reality of power-sharing in Washington. Sooner or later he will have to produce a measure that can garner support in a Democratic-led White House and Senate. That could force him to rely on some Democratic votes for final approval, the same scenario that outraged far-right members of the Republican Party and led to McCarthy's downfall, causing three weeks of farce of power vacuums in the House. And if the voting schedule on Israel is delayed, Johnson will lose even more time just two weeks away from a government shutdown threat that can only be avoided with a funding bill that will be even harder to pass than a measure on Israel.
The aid debate is also highlighting the huge divide that exists within the Republican Party on foreign policy between the isolationists of Make America Great Again and the old-school establishment that still advocates strong global leadership through alliances that helped ensure world peace since World War II. Johnson's maneuver, by loading the Israel bill with political priorities and separating it from funding Ukraine, has created a rift with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a staunch conservative but closer to Biden than his own party in the House of Representatives on this issue. "Time and time again, history has taught us that the costs of disengaging from the world are far greater than those of engaging," McConnell said Wednesday, before Johnson crossed the Capitol and had lunch with Republican senators. "As foolish as it is to deny the clear link between America's adversaries and the threats we face, it is just as dangerous to pretend that, as a global superpower, our nation could not or should not stand up to each of them."
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As McConnell suggested, the standoff over aid to Ukraine is also exposing the chasm within the Republican Party and showing the broader question of whether the United States and its people are prepared to remain a bulwark of global democracy. It's a central issue in a potential general election showdown between Biden, an internationalist whose worldview was forged in the Cold War, and former President Donald Trump, a transactional leader who sees alliances more as protective mechanisms than multipliers of U.S. global power. After all, the fundamental question in Ukraine is whether the United States will continue to defend the independence of a country whose right to exist is threatened by a ruthless invasion planned in the Kremlin. A large number of Republicans in the House of Representatives and a growing number in the Senate do not regard Ukraine as a vital U.S. foreign policy interest, with some appearing to prefer Russian President Vladimir Putin to democracy in Kyiv.
But Ukraine's supporters in Congress have reason to be hopeful after Johnson attended the Senate's weekly luncheon on foreign policy on Wednesday. The Louisiana lawmaker has long expressed skepticism about aid to Ukraine, but appeared to indicate that he realized he had broader duties as speaker of the House of Representatives, beyond his own political preferences. Last week, Johnson told Fox News that the U.S. should not abandon Ukraine to Putin. Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin told reporters that the rookie House speaker had been open to approving funding for Ukraine if he had the support of House Republicans. And South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a supporter of helping the war-torn country, said he was "amazed" by the House speaker's foreign policy acumen. But the past few weeks have shown that there's a big difference between what a GOP president wants to do and what he can do. The Republican majority alone is unlikely to garner enough support to approve funding for Ukraine. So he will again need Democratic help, which could be fatal to his presidency.
While Republican schisms in foreign policy grab most of the headlines, domestic political aftershocks to Israel's war against Hamas are becoming a growing problem for Biden. Some prominent progressives are increasingly critical of Israel's tactics in Gaza, where hundreds of civilians have been killed in what Israel says are targeted raids on leaders of the Islamist extremist group. The debate in the House of Representatives on the aid package for the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will bring Democratic tensions to the surface.
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The president came face-to-face with that anger during a trip to Minnesota on Wednesday, when a protester who identified herself to reporters as Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg began chanting "ceasefire now." Biden explained that he favored a humanitarian pause in Israeli operations to allow time for the release of hostages in Gaza and said he understood the "emotion." But he has refused to publicly call on Israel to agree to a ceasefire with Hamas, reasoning that it has the right to defend itself in the wake of the Oct. 7 terror attacks that killed 1,400 people in Israel, most of them civilians.
The U.S. president is in a delicate political position a year before the election, and he can't afford a low turnout among progressive and Muslim voters who favor Palestinians in swing states like Michigan. In an apparent sign that the White House understands the potential political risks, Biden on Wednesday unveiled his plans for a new strategy against Islamophobia in the United States. The move could expose Biden to attacks from Republicans at a time when the country is being rocked by rising anti-Semitism. But the conflict in the Middle East is leaving the president with a new set of political risks that are difficult to navigate at home.
U.S. House of RepresentativesIsrael Gaza