The Senate is considering a foreign aid package for allies – but it’s unclear if it can pass Congress

· Feb. 7, 2024, 3:17 pm
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The U.S. Capitol.

The paralysis of Congress — and its political blame game — was on stark display this week.

Republican senators abandoned a previously negotiated bipartisan $118 billion national security package that included border security and foreign aid. That package failed to clear a procedural vote, 49-50, Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer quickly turned to plan B: passing just the foreign aid and the (FEND) Off Fentanyl portion of the package.

Senate leaders are negotiating how many amendments and how quickly they can bring it to the floor for a vote.

This stunning turn of events shows how difficult legislating has become in Congress, even on issues where there is broad bipartisan support, like aid to Ukraine and Israel.

Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper said he was shocked and appalled by the about-face of Senate Republicans, saying Republicans were “all hat, no cattle on border security.” 

“It strikes at the heart of what makes democracy work — which is you, on a bipartisan basis, work out a complex agreement, where both sides give,” he said. “And you finally reach the agreement and they turn their back because [Donald] Trump wants chaos. Trump wants chaos at the border. He thinks it’s a political advantage.”

Hickenlooper is hopeful that the Senate can move quickly on the foreign aid portions of the bill.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet spoke in favor of that idea on the Senate floor. He’s been pushing for months for additional aid to Ukraine and received assurances from chamber leaders that it would happen. And he said the Senate, which has a two-week recess starting next week, “should not leave until we’re done.”

“There’s no excuse for not doing what needs to be done with respect to Ukraine,” said Bennet. “They’ve done all we could ask them to do. And they’ve sacrificed their lives for freedom. And what we’re being asked to do is provide them with assistance and then intelligence that has made a difference. And if we don’t, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is going to win.”

The package includes $60 billion for Ukraine, $14.1 billion for Israel, $10 billion in humanitarian aid to Gaza, $4.8 billion to support regional partners in the Indo-Pacific and deter Chinese aggression.

Still, Bennet was astonished that senators who insisted that the border be part of the negotiations walked away. He said he spent the morning talking to some of his Republican colleagues to try to get them to support the bill.

Foreign aid faces many hurdles in the House

But even if this package passes the Senate, its future is uncertain in the Republican-controlled House, where hard right members like Colorado’s GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert have opposed additional Ukraine aid.

House Speaker Mike Johnson would not commit to anything. “We’ll see what the Senate does. We’re allowing the process to play out and we’ll handle it as it is sent over.”

Johnson has said that these issues should be addressed on their own merits. But just a few months ago he also insisted that any Ukraine aid package had to include border security, a position that changed once a bipartisan border bill was crafted.

The Louisiana Republican on Wednesday blamed Democrats and President Joe Biden for voting against a stand alone Israel aid package, this time without any spending offsets. 

“There is no reason whatsoever for them to object to the contents of that bill,” Johnson said. “They're doing it for political purposes. It's bad for national security. It's also terrible policy and terrible politics.”

Republican leaders put the bill on suspension, which would require two-thirds approval of the House, because it was unlikely that they would be able to get a rule passed on the bill. Conservatives did not support the lack of offsets in the bill.

Colorado GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn said Johnson has “different considerations.” Currently, House Republicans hold a very slim majority in the chamber. Both Johnson and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy had to deal with the far-right members voting against rules and holding up votes on the floor.

Still, Lamborn said he’d be “receptive” to the bill and “possibly supporting it,” but wants to see the details first.

“We need to support Ukraine in their fight for freedom against the invasion of Putin, who might go into NATO countries next,” said Lamborn, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee. “And we have to support Israel and Taiwan as well.”

Fellow Republican Rep. Ken Buck, who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, also said he wants to see aid to partners, but he also wants to see it paid for.

“We spent way too much money in the last Congress on the IRS, way too much money on the Inflation Reduction Act and other things. And there's billions of dollars sitting out there that have been unused,” Buck said. “I'd like to see that money used to pay for the foreign aid.”

Like others, Buck wants to see the details first. Still, he acknowledged a bill that is paid for could be a heavy lift. “I still think it’s worth the effort to try to reduce it overall.”

Colorado’s House Democrats also seem supportive of the idea.

“Frankly, I think that a general security supplemental is what [House Republicans] should have been doing all along,” said Rep. Diana DeGette. She said there is widespread support for additional aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Rep. Jason Crow, who also sits on the Foreign Affairs committee, said he would support a national security supplemental “that is an ally and partner focused bill that’s in our own national security interest.”

But the Democrat has his doubts that Speaker Johnson has a strategy for moving any foreign aid forward, “which is why Democrats, with whatever Republicans are willing to join us, we’ll step up and figure out how to lead. And we have some mechanisms potentially for pushing votes through. So we’re looking at how to do that.”

It was something Democratic House Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York acknowledged Wednesday morning, saying rank-and-file Republicans and rank-and-file Democrats were talking through different options.

And some House members were looking for a plan C, plan D, etc. Something that can get through a fractured and divided Congress and send aid to allies.

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