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New US bill advances, creates ‘double standard’ for Israel weapons sales

Nine Democrats supported the bill that Republicans say stops the president from "circumventing congressional intent."
Capitol Police Officers gather on the steps of the House of Representatives ahead of a protest by Congressional aides advocating for a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas at the U.S. Capitol on May 16, 2024 in Washington, DC.

US lawmakers advanced bipartisan legislation Wednesday that gives Congress the power to block a presidential pause on arms transfers to Israel.

The move is the latest by the House that signals unconditional support for Israel and could hamper President Joe Biden’s ability to leverage weapons over the Netanyahu government. Biden officials are pressuring Israel to allow more aid into Gaza and to develop a concrete plan for the day after a defeat of Hamas.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to approve the bill, 33-13, with the support of nine Democrats. It now heads to the House floor for a vote on passage.

The legislation responds directly to Biden’s pause on a planned shipment of powerful 2,000-pound bombs due to concern that Israel would drop them on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than one million refugees are sheltering. The president has threatened to withhold more weapons shipments if Israel launches a major invasion of Rafah.

But GOP lawmakers have rebuked Biden and said his administration didn’t consult with Congress on pausing weapons to the Jewish state. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said Wednesday that the president is "circumventing congressional intent."

“Biden's decision to withhold weapons the ranking member and I signed off on and were approved and appropriated by Congress is tantamount to an arms embargo,” McCaul said.

The legislation could pass in the House with stronger bipartisan support than a bill lawmakers passed last week that threatens to freeze funds for the State Department and Defense Department if Biden doesn’t promptly deliver weapons to Israel.

Of the nine Democrats who voted to advance Wednesday's bill, Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) was the only one among the 16 Democrats to cross party lines and pass the Israel weapons bill last week. That leaves eight more Democrats who could join the House Republican majority in its pushback against Biden's weapons policy when this next bill hits the floor.

Both measures face headwinds in the Senate. But Democrats who staunchly support Israel, such as Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and John Fetterman (D-Pa.), and don't want to see Congress bypassed when it comes to weapons deliveries could give the latest bipartisan bill the boost it needs to pass in the closely divided chamber — that is, if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer puts the bill to a vote, a step he has signaled he won’t take on the measure that passed the House last week.

Weapons 'double standard'

The latest bill would create a new waiting period for pausing weapons deliveries to Israel. The president would have to report to Congress the policy justification for any planned delay and whether it would “adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge over military threats to Israel.” After two weeks, lawmakers could offer a joint resolution that, with unified congressional support, would block the president’s ability to initiate the pause for at least 10 more days.

But Democrats took issue with the bill’s fixation on Israel. They argued that any change to congressional oversight of the president's power over future arms sales should be applied “uniformly and consistently.”

“Any such change must be global in scope,” House Foreign Affairs ranking member Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said, offering an amendment that would expand the bill to apply to any country that is the recipient of US arms transfers.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he supported the amendment because it would apply the same standard to Saudi Arabia and Egypt as it does to Israel.

But the amendment was ultimately rejected on party lines. McCaul suggested it would water down the bill’s purpose: to reaffirm Congress's “enduring, ironclad” commitment to Israel.

“Why single out Israel, you may ask? Because this president singled out Israel by taking the unprecedented step of publicly threatening to defy congressional intent by withholding weapons to Israel, including those already approved by this committee, with zero congressional consultation,” the chairman said.

One Democrat who said he disagreed with the president’s weapons shipment pause compared the "double standard" that Republicans were creating for Israel to the International Criminal Court's probe into alleged war crimes by Israeli officials.

Rep. Dean Phillips said the ICC prosecutor sought arrest warrants for Israeli officials this week “without so much as hearing from the Israeli government regarding its own comprehensive investigative procedures and accountability mechanisms.”

“And yet, when the majority moves to upend the existing arms sale process to create a different standard just for Israel, it only ends up being used by Israel's adversaries to undermine Israel's credibility. I believe Congress must be allowed to provide oversight and push back when appropriate against any administration's decision to withhold arms to any country,” Phillips said. The Minnesota Democrat ultimately voted in support of the bill.