As Democrats struggle to find their message on the conflict in the Gaza Strip, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) had the opportunity to kick off his unlikely reign atop the House GOP by uniting Republicans and putting Democrats in a tough spot on aid to Israel.
Instead, Johnson took the opportunity to do something else: spark a partisan fight that is deepening divisions in the Capitol and all but ensuring aid for Israel will be delayed.
A bill providing $14.3 billion in aid for Israel—“paid for” with matching cuts to the Internal Revenue Service—narrowly passed on the House floor Tuesday evening, 226 to 196, with 12 Democrats supporting the measure and two Republicans opposed.
Although the bill attracted some Democratic support, Senate leadership has declared the policy “dead on arrival,” and the White House has already said President Joe Biden would veto the legislation if it somehow made it to his desk. In short, while the new speaker may have won a temporary win with a round of headlines about the House GOP passing Israel aid over Democratic objections, Congress is no closer to actually finding a resolution to the standoff.
For starters, the IRS cuts in the bill—which Johnson is branding as “offsets” to the cost of weapons assistance—would actually increase the U.S. debt, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO said the legislation and its cuts to the IRS would ironically increase the debt by $26.8 billion over the next decade, while the head of the IRS was even more pessimistic, predicting that the “pay for” would cost the government $90 billion over that same time period.
The offsets have incensed Democrats, who see it as a cheap poison pill. They spent much of Thursday attacking Republicans for trying to “pay for” Israel aid while actually increasing the debt. In fact, Democrats were repulsed that Republicans would even try to offset Israel aid in the first place.
“For the first time in history, a Speaker of the House has taken a position that he will not support aid to Israel unless there are conditions,” Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) said on Twitter. “It represents the first time in history that a House Speaker has all but endorsed conditioning aid to Israel. This is a dangerous precedent that cannot be allowed to stand.”
Right-wing Republicans have increasingly amplified their isolationist and America First agenda. Delivering aid to Ukraine, which just a year ago was a GOP priority, has since fractured the Republican conference as conservatives bellyache about the cost of sending money abroad rather than directing it to domestic issues like the border.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged that, after three weeks of chaos and dysfunction, in order to project a united House, Johnson had to include a sweetener for the right wing of the party.
“I think his goal here is to try to score a victory for House Republicans who are unified,” McCaul said.
Republicans largely accomplished that goal, even if the bill isn’t going anywhere and a couple of GOP members voted against the Israel legislation.
One of those members, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), is perhaps the canary in the House chamber, as her MAGA brand of politics has closely mirrored the views of much of the GOP base. Greene said earlier this week that “funding foreign wars is not America First. It’s America Last.”
The other GOP ‘no’ vote, debt hawk Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), announced his opposition over the weekend. Massie is notorious for splitting with the majority of his party over votes, particularly in matters of war or the national debt. But a Twitter poll Massie conducted also conspicuously points to the direction of the party—at least among Massie’s more libertarian-leaning followers.
With nearly 50,000 votes, nearly two-thirds of respondents said Congress should send aid to neither Israel nor Ukraine. (In Massie’s highly unscientific poll, 17 percent of respondents said Congress should send aid only to Israel, 5 percent said only to Ukraine, and 15 percent said both countries.)
Massie told The Daily Beast Thursday that in the case of “withering support” for U.S. aid abroad, “it’s a grassroots movement.”
“People are watching what’s going on at the border and they’re having a hard time making ends meet with their grocery bills and their rent. And until now, it’s always been free to send money overseas,” Massie said. “But people are realizing there are consequences for uncapped spending—and it’s inflation.”
The Republican sentiment that the U.S. should not back Israel was once unthinkable in the Republican party; supporting Israel has long been a key GOP belief.
But Republican lawmakers acknowledged that voters are headed in a different direction on the issue.
While McCaul said there is still “very strong support for Israel” among Republicans, he admitted that Donald Trump’s America First populism was having an effect. “I know there’s a wing of sort of isolationism within my party,” McCaul said. “It’s not the party of Reagan that I signed up for.”
Despite the shifting ideological sands, Speaker Johnson navigated the various wings of his party with the Israel bill. Where former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) may have struggled to find consensus, potentially just pairing Ukraine aid with Israel aid as the White House has lobbied for, Johnson found a legislative solution that suited the House GOP—at least for now.
Johnson’s legislation is in no danger of becoming law, and even if a dozen House Democrats supported the bill, it’s barely put Democrats in a tough position,
A different bill—perhaps one that wasn’t offset, or at least chose a different offset—could have garnered more Democratic support, and potentially put actual pressure on the Senate to just swallow the House bill.
Now, the Senate will have little incentive to act on the House bill—and there will be plenty of pressure on the House to take the Senate’s legislation, which will likely include Ukraine funding and won’t be offset.
But for now, even moderate Republicans who fervently support aid for Israel and Ukraine were praising Johnson’s gambit. Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) lauded the legislation as “fiscally responsible.”
“We should be supporting Israel,” Bacon said. “But just writing a check that goes into the deficit, it’s not the right answer.”
Even Republicans who were somewhat critical of the strategy—chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) said he prefers “clean bills across the board”—still supported Johnson’s legislation on the floor.
But the fact remains that this Israel aid bill is a first offer. While conservatives and moderates were in lockstep, there could be far less unity on the ultimate legislation. And Johnson will be judged far more on the final product than the opening bid.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Daily Beast that Johnson’s proposal is “doomed to fail.”
“I’m weird; I think in terms of things actually going into law as opposed to just passing out of one body or the other,” he said. “So yeah, and the real question will be, what then? What do they do to try to ultimately get support for Israel?”
Given the Senate has declared Johnson’s bill a non-starter, the upper chamber will likely take Israel aid into its own hands. In the Senate, a multi-pronged national security package that includes money for Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan, and border security, is gaining momentum. But a costly package with tentacles literally all over the map is something GOP hardliners adamantly oppose.
All the while, aid for Israel and Ukraine will have to wait as Congress plays games.
“I think it’ll just delay it because we know that’s not going to be the final product,” Fitzpatrick said of the IRS provision in this Israel bill. “So it’s just going to result in it going to conference and that provision being stripped out and us re-voting on it.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD), the Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member, said the IRS provision is a dead end where legislation requires bipartisan support to advance, even though he commended the House GOP for giving it a shot.
“It sends a message that says that we’re going to be serious about trying to actually reduce some of the costs in government,” Rounds told the Daily Beast. “So more power to the House for trying it, but I’m questioning whether it can be successful.”