House GOP Israel aid bill faces Senate backlash

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) faced an immediate backlash Tuesday over his first key legislative decision, as the newly elected GOP leader tries to send emergency aid to Israel without inflaming his party’s far-right conservatives over the budget.

Rejecting President Biden’s call for a $106 billion international aid package with funding for Ukraine, Israel and other needs, House Republicans led by Johnson countered with a significantly smaller bill that only includes money for Israel. Johnson proposed coupling about $14.3 billion in Israel aid with cuts to the Internal Revenue Service, a top priority for the right, although the cuts would add to the deficit.

Johnson’s gambit was swiftly rejected by lawmakers in both parties. Top Senate Republicans such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Susan Collins (Me.) called for including Ukraine aid in the legislative package, while the White House and congressional Democrats said cutting the IRS was a non-starter. The administration also panned Johnson for leaving out Biden’s proposals for humanitarian assistance, increasing immigration enforcement and funds to counter China. In remarks on Tuesday, McConnell also suggested the legislation should include funds for the U.S.-Mexico border.

House GOP demands IRS budget cuts along with Israel aid

The legislative jockeying reflects the challenge facing Johnson as he tries to secure passage of aid to Israel through divided government without antagonizing the far-right House GOP lawmakers who ousted former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and paralyzed Congress’s lower chamber. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing that neither Israel nor Ukraine could succeed in fighting off Hamas and Russian incursions, respectively, without U.S. aid.

Johnson was set to meet with Blinken on Tuesday afternoon.

A far larger share of Republicans in the Senate than in the House support aid for Ukraine, though a significant bloc in the House GOP also backs that. Bipartisan majorities in both chambers support aid for Israel’s war in Gaza.

Despite the criticism, Johnson’s legislative proposal may be able to unite House Republicans and allow the GOP to pass a bill funding Israel, giving it leverage in subsequent negotiations with the Senate and White House. Failure to pass an appropriations bill through the House undercut McCarthy this September, ultimately culminating in a short-term deal to fund the government that was favorable to the White House. House Republicans broadly support cutting the IRS budget, despite its impact on the deficit, which may increase Johnson’s chances of first passing a bill through the House. A vote could come as soon as this week.

“This is going to be a meaningful test for Johnson: He has to keep the conference united, and the selection of the IRS funds as an offset is a way to do that; that is low-hanging fruit,” said Don Schneider, who served as a top aide to House Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee. “But you’re folding in the deficit, you’re folding in foreign aid and Ukraine — which are divisive issues among Republicans — and you’re folding in the border, which is also divisive. We’ll see if he can thread the needle.”

After the bill’s release late Monday, the number of Republicans balking at Johnson’s approach grew throughout the day on Tuesday.

Collins, the top Republican on the appropriations committee, told reporters that Republicans were already counting on cuts to the IRS budget as part of the debt ceiling agreement Biden reached with McCarthy in May.

“Where does it end here? The bill has four important components. It’s not only a bill to help our ally Israel, and to assist the Ukrainians in repelling the Russian invasion,” she added. “It also includes funding to help discourage China from its ambitions, and it has absolutely critical money for border security.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), another Ukraine supporter in the Senate, also said: “I think the best answer to our national security problems is all these together [in the same bill]. Hamas was just hosted by the Russians in Moscow. I think breaking them out sends the wrong signal.”

It was not immediately clear how many House GOP lawmakers objected to the move to split up the aid. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), chairman of a House subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, joined three Democrats in a letter to Johnson urging him to package the supplemental funding requests together.

In an interview on Fox News that aired Tuesday, Johnson defended his proposal and said he expects it to enjoy a strong reception with the public at large.

“If you put this to the American people, and they weigh the two needs, I think they are going to say standing with Israel and protecting the innocent is in our national interest, and a more immediate need than IRS agents,” Johnson said.

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