Washington Policy Weekly: Congress Debates Biden’s Supplemental Request

Israel-Gaza Update

1. Humanitarian Situation Worsens in Gaza

Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to the Middle East over the weekend as the death toll in Gaza surpassed 9,000. Secretary Blinken held a number of meetings with regional leaders, including meetings with Lebanese, Qatari, Jordanian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Palestinian, and Israeli officials. The secretary’s meetings spanned a range of topics from discussing the developing humanitarian crisis in Gaza to preventing the conflict from spreading in the region. Blinken also met with UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini, and offered his condolences as the number of UNRWA staff members killed serving in Gaza reached 77, which was building on recent discussions between Vice President Kamala Harris and UN Secretary General António Guterres. During his trip, Blinken emphasized the urgency of getting humanitarian aid into Gaza. As senior US officials have reiterated in recent weeks, the Biden administration is working toward the resumption of essential services, an increase in the number of humanitarian trucks into Gaza, and safe passage for civilians trying to leave the enclave. Progress toward the latter goal was made on Wednesday when it was announced that foreign nationals, including US citizens, had been granted the ability to enter Egypt through the Rafah Crossing. The news follows weeks of conversations between US, Egyptian, and Israeli officials to ensure that those departing Gaza do not pose a security threat.

With foreign nationals now able to depart Gaza, the Biden administration made it clear that it does not want to see the scale of displacement increase. In a White House press briefing, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby asserted that it is not the administration’s policy to have Palestinians resettle outside of Gaza: “For the people who call that home, we want them to be able to go back home and—and do so safely and effectively.” State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller echoed Kirby’s message, stating that it is the State Department’s position that “Palestinians deserve the right to stay on Palestinian land.”

However, the administration’s avowed commitment to preventing further displacement has not been met with an embrace of a ceasefire. Officials maintained their commitment to targeted humanitarian pauses that would allow for the release of hostages and delivery of aid into Gaza. A request by Secretary Blinken to have so-called “humanitarian pauses” was rejected by Israel. On Thursday, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) became the first in the Senate to explicitly call for a ceasefire, joining 17 of his Democratic colleagues in the House. Later in the day, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) joined Senator Durbin, though not using the word “ceasefire” in his statement, in calling on Israel to “reconsider its approach and shift to a more deliberate and proportionate counterterrorism campaign.” Senator Murphy described the rate of civilian deaths inside Gaza as both “unacceptable and unsustainable,” declaring that Israel’s approach “does not appear likely to achieve the goal of permanently ending the threat of Hamas.” The Senator’s call for a change in operational approach was followed by reports that US officials have begun to ask Israeli officials to adjust their tactics in Gaza, urging them, among several things, to use smaller bombs when going after Hamas leaders and infrastructure.

2. Security Assistance to Israel at Center Stage

President Biden’s emergency funding request was the focus of debate last week as Congress worked to provide Israel with an emergency security assistance package. Emphasizing the importance of meeting the president’s full supplemental request, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III testified in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. Both officials underscored the urgency of providing security assistance to US allies in addition to “tackl[ing] grave humanitarian needs created by autocrats and terrorists.”

Despite the officials’ testimonies, the president’s supplemental request continues to be met by resistance from Republicans. Led by Speaker of the House of representatives Mike Johnson (R-LA), House Republicans said that they would aim to decouple aid for Israel from Biden’s other priorities, such as funding Ukraine. As promised, they introduced a bill that would provide $14.3 billion in military aid for Israel, tying it to domestic spending cuts and no funds to Ukraine. The bill passed mostly along party lines on Thursday but stands little chance of getting through the Senate. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took to the floor on Thursday and vowed that the Senate “will not take up the House GOP’s deeply flawed proposal,” echoing the White House’s assurance that it would veto a bill that does not meet the president’s request for assistance to Ukraine. According to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, providing support for both Ukraine and Israel remains a priority for the administration. Jean-Pierre called on Republicans to stop “playing political games that threaten the source of funding for Israel’s self-defense.” With the House bill unlikely to progress any further, lawmakers will work on negotiating a bipartisan agreement on Biden’s funding request.

3. Working to Prevent Widening the Conflict

Mitigating conflict escalation beyond Israel and Gaza stayed in focus for US officials. In his testimony in front of Congress on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III communicated that the DoD has rapidly strengthened American force posture in the region to deter any actors from expanding the conflict beyond Gaza. The DoD announced the deployment of 300 additional troops to the CENTCOM region, arrival of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, and the deployment of B-1B Lancer bombers to Turkey to begin a training exercise. According to the White House, however, there are still “no plans or intentions to put US military troops on the ground in Gaza in the future.” For now, US support for Israel’s security will continue in the form of boosting Israeli air-defense capabilities, precision-guided munitions, small-diameter bombs, interceptors for the Iron Dome, and other key military equipment.

Along with military efforts to reduce the risk of conflict expansion and regional instability, the Biden administration asserted that it is still committed to deepening Israel’s integration in the region. NSC’s Kirby maintained that the administration “believe[s] that an integrated Israel is good for the region. And we still believe that that path is worth pursuing…[and] the Saudi Arabians have indicated a willingness to continue in that regard.” Kirby’s comments follow speculation that Hamas’s October 7 attack was launched in response to normalization talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Also Happening This Week in Washington…

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Resolution Condemning ‘Support of Hamas’ in Colleges Passes House. On November 2, resolution H.Res.798, introduced by Representative Owen Burgess (R-UT), passed the House by a 396-23 vote. The resolution condemns the support of Hamas and other terrorist organizations on college campuses “which may lead to the creation of a hostile environment for Jewish students, faculty, and staff.”

SHIP Act Fails in the House. On November 3, the House of Representatives voted to table Representative Michael Lawler’s (R-NY) H.R.3774, the Stop Harboring Iranian Petroleum (SHIP) Act. The bill would have required President Biden to sanction individuals who knowingly aid and abet Iranian petroleum exports in violation of US sanctions until Iran “no longer repeatedly provides support for international terrorism” and dismantles its nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

Bill to Expel Palestinians in US Introduced in House. Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT) introduced H.R.6211, the “Safeguarding Americans from Extremism Act.” The bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to implement a pause on all visas, refugee status, and granting of asylum for individuals holding a passport from the Palestinian Authority.

Legislative Activity on Iran Ramps Up. Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) introduced H.R.6114, the Maximum Pressure Act. The bill would codify Trump-era sanctions against Iran and require, among numerous other provisions, that the $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets be transferred to the US Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund. H.R.6120, introduced by Representative Daniel Meuser (R-PA), would similarly restore sanctions on Iran. In the Senate, Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced S.3197, the Iranian Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2023. The bill would give the Department of Homeland Security Investigation office $150 million in funding for oil sanctions enforcement against Iran. And on November 1, the House passed H.Res.559 354-53, which declares that it is unacceptable for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

Representative Luna Introduces Bill to Block UNHRC Funding Until It Condemns Hamas. Representative Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL) introduced H.R.6118, the Stand with Israel Act. The bill would cease all funding to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) until the UN Security Council and General Assembly pass a resolution condemning Hamas for the October 7 attacks against Israel.

Vote to Censure Representative Tlaib Fails. On November 1, the House voted 222-186 to table H.Res.829, a resolution introduced by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) to censure Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) for criticizing Israel, calling for a ceasefire, and allegedly “leading an insurrection at the United States Capitol” by delivering a speech to protesters.   

Bill Imposing Sanctions on Hamas Passes the House. On November 1, Representative Brian Mast’s (R-FL) H.R.340, the Hamas International Financing Prevention Act, passed the House 363-46. The bill would require the president to impose sanctions on individuals or entities that provide support to the targeted group.

Bill Auditing Educational Curriculum in Palestine Passes in House. The House passed H.R.3266, the Peace and Tolerance in Palestinian Education Act. The bill would require the State Department to report whether educational materials in Gaza encouraged violence or intolerance toward other nations or ethnic groups and whether US funding contributed to the “dissemination of the offending materials.”

House Passes Resolution Urging EU to Designate Hezbollah as a Terrorist Organization. The House passed H.Res.599, a resolution that applauds collaboration between the United States and the European Union (EU) to thwart Hezbollah’s activities while urging the EU to designate the party in its entirety as a terrorist organization.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Express Concern Over Escalating Violence in West Bank. Senators Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Jeff Merkley (D-MA) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, outlining their concern about an uptick in attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank by Israeli settlers. The senators urged Secretary Blinken to “strongly convey to the Israeli government its responsibility to uphold the rule of law in the West Bank and protect civilians under its jurisdiction, while holding perpetrators of these attacks to account.” Shortly after, speaking from a joint press availability with Jordanian and Egyptian officials, Secretary Blinken echoed the senators’ concern about escalating settler violence. Blinken noted that he has communicated to Israeli officials that “incitement and extremist violence must be stopped – and perpetrators must be held accountable.”

Senate Republicans Demand that Majority Leader Schumer Reject Humanitarian Assistance to Gaza. A group of Senate Republicans, led by Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), sent a letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in which they demanded that he reject billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance requested for Gaza as part of President Biden’s $106 billion aid package. The senators asserted that “sending aid to the Palestinians in Gaza is akin to funneling aid directly to Hamas.” On Saturday, US Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues Dave Satterfield refuted reports that Hamas is redirecting aid into Gaza, stating that US officials have not been told that Hamas is block or diverting humanitarian assistance.

3) Briefings and Hearings

Ambassadors to Israel and Egypt Confirmed. The Senate confirmed the appointments of Jack Lew to the position of US Ambassador to Israel and Herro Mustafa Garg to the position of US Ambassador to Egypt.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Assesses Threats to the US. On October 31, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing to examine how the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Counterterrorism Center are responding to threats to the United States. In his opening statement, Chairman Gary Peters (D-MI) expressed concern over violent Islamophobic and antisemitic responses to the war in Gaza, cyber-attacks, and the spread of drone technology.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Continues the National Emergency in Sudan. On October 31, President Biden sent a letter to Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) and President Pro Tempore of the Senate Patty Murray (D-WA) to notify them of his decision to continue the national emergency declared by President Bill Clinton with respect to Sudan. President Biden argued that “policies and actions of the Government of Sudan continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” justifying continued sanctions against Sudan under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Shortly after, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for an immediate ceasefire between the warring Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Armed Forces. Secretary Blinken urged the parties to uphold their obligation under international humanitarian law concerning citizens and called on them to negotiate an end to the conflict.

White House Announces National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia. The White House announced the development of a national strategy to counter Islamophobia. The announcement follows an increase in Islamophobic and racist attacks on Arabs in recent weeks, notably the recent murders of a six-year-old Palestinian American boy in Illinois and of a doctor in Texas.

2) State Department

State Department Condemns Detention of Iranian Human Rights Defenders. The State Department condemned Iranian authorities’ detention of several human rights defenders during a funeral for a 16-year-old reportedly assaulted for not wearing a hijab. The State Department also called on Iran to release those unjustly detained and condemned state violence against Iranian women and girls.

US-Morocco Africa Working Group Meets in Washington. On October 31, the State Department hosted the US-Morocco Africa Working Group to consult on mutual efforts to promote regional stability, expand economic ties, and strengthen US-Morocco governance and development partnerships.

US and UAE Hold Tenth Economic Policy Dialogue. On November 1, the United States and UAE held their tenth Economic Policy Dialogue. The dialogue focused on bilateral trade and investment between the two countries, with the US government encouraging the UAE to sign the Joint Statement on Cooperation on Global Supply Chains and proposing a Science and Technology Agreement between the two countries. The US-UAE Anti-Money Laundering/Countering the Financing of Terrorism Working Group also met for the second time during the dialogue.

 3) Department of Defense

Top US Officials Meet with Saudi Minister of Defense. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met with Saudi Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman to discuss the US-Saudi bilateral defense partnership and the prevention of regional conflicts. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also held a meeting with the Defense Minister, where they discussed developments in the Middle East and the “significant de-escalation of the conflict [in Yemen] over the past year.” Later in the week, Secretary Blinken met with bin Salman to discuss shared priorities of peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Secretary Austin Meets with Kuwaiti Minister of Defense. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met with Kuwaiti Minister of Defense Sheikh Ahmad Fahad Al-Ahmad Al Sabah to emphasize US support for its regional partners and to consult on preventing further escalation of the war in Gaza.

State Department Approves $300 Million Sale to Iraq. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the State Department has approved a possible sale to Iraq worth $300 million in the engineering and maintenance of helicopters. The sale would include complete technical and logistical support and would see US government employees and contractors in the field.

4) Department of the Treasury

Department of the Treasury Holds Meetings on Aid to Gaza. On October 30, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson convened a group of representatives from NGOs, international organizations, and the US government to discuss “facilitation of legitimate humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza.”

Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Speaks with Bahraini Ambassador. On October 30, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson spoke with Bahraini Ambassador to the United States Nancy Abdullah Jamal, who also serves as a representative to the Executive Committee of the Terrorist Financing Target Center (TFTC), to discuss collaboration through the TFTC to disrupt terrorist financial networks. Under Secretary Nelson also emphasized US commitment to working with the TFTC to prevent regional actors from exploiting the ongoing war in Gaza.