Washington Policy Weekly: Congress Continues Deliberations on National Security Package

On Thursday, February 8, the Senate advanced the consideration of a national security supplemental funding package that excludes border policy changes. The $95.34 billion package addresses President Joe Biden’s security priorities as specified in his initial request in October. It is unclear when a final vote will take place on the bill, which will then have to be considered by the House of Representatives if passed.

For months, Congress has been actively discussing a national security supplemental funding package that would provide additional security assistance to Ukraine, Israel, and allies in the Indo-Pacific. As the negotiations began, Republicans in the House and Senate indicated that they would block any funding package that did not also address their immigration concerns at the US border with Mexico. Democrats failed to advance a package without funding or policy changes for US border security policy, and they, along with President Biden, agreed to participate in a bipartisan negotiation process. Senators James Lankford (R-OK), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) led negotiations to reach a bipartisan agreement on border policy changes. But as members of the Senate indicated that they were getting close to a deal that would tie these changes to funding for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan, former President Donald Trump expressed public disapproval of the package, casting doubt on the possibility of passing any legislation.

On Monday, February 5, the Senate released the text of a bipartisan bill, which included $14.1 billion in security assistance for Israel, $2.44 billion to support operations of the US Central Command in the Red Sea, and $10 billion in humanitarian assistance for populations in conflict zones including Ukraine, the occupied West Bank, and Gaza. Despite efforts by Lankford and other Senate Republicans, the bipartisan deal failed to advance in the Senate. Before the text of the bill was released, Republican members of the House announced that they would not support the package, and Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) indicated that it would be “dead on arrival” in the House. In this vein, the speaker attempted to advance an Israel-only spending bill, H.R.7217, which ultimately failed to advance on Tuesday by a vote of 250-180.

Coming full circle, the Senate advanced the consideration of a new national security supplemental funding package on Thursday, February 8 that separates Biden’s Ukraine and Israel priorities from funding for border security. Once more, lawmakers must come together and agree on how to handle potential amendments to the legislation, as Republicans continue to declare that they will not support a bill without amendments around border-related issues, non-lethal Ukraine aid, and humanitarian aid for Gaza. Despite encouragement from President Biden to get a deal done, the national security package looks primed for further delay.

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Rep. Malliotakis Introduces Legislation Targeting Pro-Palestine Activism in Higher Education. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) introduced H.R.7231 and H.R.7232, bills that seek to prohibit federal support for institutions of higher education “that promote antisemitism” and to direct the Secretary of State to revoke the visas of who students “who have engaged in antisemitic activities,” respectively. In line with previously introduced legislation, the bills move to categorize pro-Palestine activism as anti-Semitic.

Sen. Paul Introduces Joint Resolution, Disapproving of Proposed Military Sale to Turkey. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced S.J.Res.60, a joint resolution that provides for congressional disapproval of a proposed military sale to Turkey. The joint resolution follows the Department of State’s recent approval of a $23 billion sale of F-16 aircraft acquisition and modernization and related equipment to Ankara.

Rep. Burchett Introduces Resolution to Investigate Hamas Use of Cryptocurrency. Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN) introduced H.Con.Res.88, which encourages the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury to investigate the possible use of cryptocurrency by Hamas and to investigate whether any cryptocurrency was exchanged between Hamas and UNRWA.

Rep. Biggs Introduces Israel-Only Security Supplemental. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) introduced H.R.7271, the Fiscally Responsible Israel Supplemental Act of 2024. The bill would provide $17.6 billion in assistance to Israel and would be paid for by repealing the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA)’s emergency funding for the Department of Commerce and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) .

Sen. Welch Leads Push for Increased Aid to Gaza. Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT) introduced S.Res.554 along with 15 Senate colleagues. The resolution calls for the urgent delivery of sufficient humanitarian aid to address the needs of civilians in Gaza.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Attacks on UNRWA Continue. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) led a bipartisan letter by House members to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that calls on UN Secretary-General Guterres and UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini to resign. The letter states that the members “have lost all confidence” in the UN leader and the UNRWA head after allegations that several UNRWA employees participated in the October 7 attacks on Israel. Thirty-seven House Republicans also sent a letter to congressional appropriators calling for an end of US funding for the agency.

Letter to DOJ Seeks Investigation of International Crisis Group as Agent of Iran. Representatives Jim Banks (R-IN), Elise Stefanik (R-NY), and Michael Waltz (R-FL) sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting that the Department of Justice investigate whether the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organization based in Brussels, acted as an unregistered agent for Iran.

House Republicans Call on Administration to Designate Houthis as FTO. More than 50 House Republicans joined a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging the Biden administration to designate the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The letter argues that the administration’s recent decision to place the Houthis on the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list does not go far enough.

Congress Seeks Investigations into US Charities and Hamas. Lawmakers on the House Ways and Means Committee wrote to the Treasury Department, IRS, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week to request information on alleged links between Hamas and US-based tax exempt charities.

3) Hearings and Briefings

HFAC Holds Hearing on Bills Regarding Hamas and the Houthis. The House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) held a hearing to advance several bills, including H.R. 7122, which would end US funding for UNRWA, and H.R.6046, which would designate the Houthis as an FTO. While the Department of State last month designated the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity, H.R. 6046 would require it to designate the group as an FTO, a more stringent classification, and would make it more challenging for the Biden administration to engage diplomatically with the Houthis. Both bills were voted out of committee for consideration in the full House, where they would have to be called up for a vote.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House Issues National Security Memorandum. On Thursday, February 8, the Biden administration announced a new national security memorandum aimed at ensuring that all US security assistance is used in line with international and humanitarian law. The memorandum requires recipient countries of US security assistance to provide written assurances that they will comply with international humanitarian law and other applicable international law prior to the transfer of US assistance. The memorandum also requires the Department of Defense and the Department of State to send Congress a report on the use of US weapons in areas of armed conflict since January 2023 and annual reports thereafter. The reports would include 1) an assessment of whether weapons have been used in compliance with international humanitarian law; 2) an assessment of reports indicating that US-funded weapons have been used in a manner inconsistent with established best practices for preventing civilian harm; 3) a description of any known occurrences of US weapons not being received by the intended recipient or being misused for unintended purposes; 4) and an assessment and analysis of each foreign government’s adherence toassurances they have provided regarding US-supported humanitarian efforts. An enforcement mechanism would also be created, which would ensure that there is a process to hold countries accountable should they violate any assurances, including by potentially suspending any further transfers of defense articles or defense services. While the memorandum does not name any countries, it is widely understood to be influenced by criticism of US support for Israel’s war on Gaza, which President Biden described as “over the top” on February 8.

White House Comments on Ongoing Israeli Military Actions in Gaza. Following rumors that Israel is planning military operations in Rafah, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communication John Kirby stated on February 8 that the White House does not have any information regarding an imminent Israeli operation and noted that “the Israeli military has a special obligation as they conduct operations there or anywhere else to make sure that they’re factoring in protection for innocent civilian life.” Kirby recognized that millions of Palestinians are currently sheltering in Rafah and stated that “military operations right now would be a disaster for those people, and it’s not something that we would support.” Even so, it has been reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the Israeli military to develop a plan for evacuating civilians sheltering in the city in preparation for an Israeli offensive. Even so, the Israeli military proceeded with bombardment and ground operations in Rafah over the weekend.

2) Department of State

Department of State Provides Update on Humanitarian Assistance to Gaza After Suspension of UNRWA Funding. Following the suspension of US funding to UNRWA last month, the Department of State stated on February 5 that future humanitarian assistance funding appropriated by Congress would go “through partners like the World Food Programme, UNICEF, and other NGOs.” The department also noted that it “appreciates the seriousness [with] which the United Nations is taking” the allegations brought against members of UNRWA staff but did not indicate a timeline for when it would consider reinstating funding for the agency.

Secretary Blinken Meets with Arab Leaders. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrapped up a February 4-8 trip to the region, which included meetings with Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. During his meetings, the secretary discussed the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Houthi attacks on commercial vessels, and ongoing efforts to secure a ceasefire in Gaza. The secretary also stressed the US commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Blinken Meets with Israeli Officials. During his trip Blinken met with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Chairman of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Blinken stressed the need to protect civilians in Gaza as Israel continues its military offensive there. He also discussed efforts to reach a ceasefire deal that would lead to the release of Israeli hostages, increase humanitarian assistance to Gaza, and help the creation of a Palestinian state.

Special Envoy for Yemen Heads to Gulf. US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to the Gulf last week to discuss with US partners the de-escalation of regional tensions, the cessation of Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, and the advancement of the peace process in Yemen.

Blinken Discusses Hostage and Pause Talks. On February 7, during his visit to Israel, Blinken commented on Israel’s reported rejection of the ceasefire proposal sent to the United States, Qatar, and Egypt, noting that “while there are some clear nonstarters in Hamas’s response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached.” The secretary also spoke about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, calling on Israel to open the Erez crossing in the north of the Strip to allow more aid to flow into the territory.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Austin Speaks with Saudi Defense Minister. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III spoke on February 5 to Saudi Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman to discuss US military action against Iran-aligned groups in Iraq and Syria and coalition strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen. The officials discussed the US defense partnership with Saudi Arabia and both nations’ commitment to work to deescalate tensions in the region.

Secretary Austin Speaks with Israeli Defense Minister. On February 9, Austin had a call with Israeli Minister of Defense Gallant to discuss post-conflict planning for Gaza, the need to increase humanitarian assistance for civilians there, West Bank stabilization efforts, and US response to attacks by Iranian-aligned groups.

CENTCOM Announces Strike That Killed Senior Leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah. On February 7, US Central Command (CENTCOM) forces carried out strikes in Baghdad that killed a leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah. CENTCOM stated that the leader played a role in planning attacks against US forces in the region, including the January 8 attack in Jordan that killed three US service members. Yahya Rasool, the spokesperson for Iraq’s commander in chief of the army, fiercely criticized the US strike, stating that the United States has “no regard for civilian lives or international laws.” Rasool also noted that the government is seriously considering expelling US troops from the country.

US Forces Continue Strikes in Yemen. CENTCOM forces conducted additional strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen last week, with a statement noting that these “actions will protect freedom of navigation and make international waters safer and more secure for U.S. Navy vessels and merchant vessels.”

4) United States Agency for International Development

USAID Official Travels to Egypt. Deputy Administrator Paloma Adams-Allen traveled to Egypt last week to meet with development and humanitarian partners, focusing on USAID’s activities in the Middle East, crisis response efforts, and advancing localization and local employee empowerment.

USAID Administrator Meets with World Food Programme Director. USAID Administrator Samantha Power met with WFP Executive Director Cindy McCain to discuss global food insecurity. Administrator Power expressed support for the WFP staff who are working to alleviate food insecurity in Gaza, and discussed with McCain WFP efforts in Sudan and Yemen.