Defense spending bill forces Israel arms transfers, nixes Ukraine aid

Defense spending bill forces Israel arms transfers, nixes Ukraine aid

The House defense spending panel on Wednesday advanced the first draft of its annual Pentagon funding bill over objections from Democrats, who cited a provision that would block the president’s authority to withhold arms transfers to Israel and a lack of security assistance for Ukraine, among other partisan provisions.

The $833 billion defense appropriations bill for fiscal 2025 would bar the Pentagon from using funds “to withhold, halt, reverse or cancel the delivery of defense articles or defense services” for Israel, and force the president to transfer withheld weapons to the Israeli military within 15 days.

The bill also drops an annual $300 million in Ukraine security aid that defense appropriators have provided since 2014; revives an effort to move Mexico from U.S. Northern Command to U.S. Southern Command; and bans the Pentagon from implementing President Joe Biden’s executive orders on climate change.

“Why, after this Congress has repeatedly demonstrated broad bipartisan support for Ukraine in its fight against Russian tyranny, are we considering a bill that fails to fund the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative?” Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday. “In addition to fighting Russian aggression, USAI helps Ukraine integrate with NATO and Western forces, directly supporting our broader national security and defense objectives.”

The Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative allows the Pentagon to place contracts for longer-term military aid for Kyiv. The FY24 defense policy bill Congress passed in December authorized $300 million for the initiative through FY25, but that money will not be available next year if appropriators decline to fund it in the spending bill.

Still, $300 million is a small trickle compared to the $13.7 billion in the initiative’s funding Congress passed in April as part of a massive foreign aid bill, which included a total $60 billion in economic and security assistance for Ukraine.

Assistance for Ukraine has divided the GOP caucus, with members admonishing Democrats for waving Ukrainian flags on the floor after the House passed 311-112 the $60 billion assistance package for Kyiv in April.

The defense spending bill marked up Wednesday also funds several more F-35 fighter jets than the Pentagon requested. It does not provide funding for a second Virginia-class attack submarine. The procurement decisions override parts of the FY25 defense authorization bill the House Armed Services Committee advanced 57-1 in May.

While the authorization bill sought to cut F-35 procurement amid growing frustration with manufacturer Lockheed Martin, defense appropriators sought to buy eight more of the fighter jets than the Pentagon requested. Defense appropriators also ignored the Armed Services Committee’s authorization for $1 billion in incremental funding to procure a second attack submarine in FY25.

“A Virginia-class submarine is a big-ticket item, so obviously it’s a much bigger deal than $300 million in Ukraine assistance,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama who supports Ukraine aid, told Defense News on Tuesday.

Israel and Gaza

Democrats also denounced the bill’s new language banning the president from withholding weapons transfers to Israel, as well as the return of several other “harmful policy riders” Republicans unsuccessfully sought to include in the FY24 spending bill, which Congress passed 286-134 in March.

“Instead of building on the bipartisan conclusion to the fiscal year 2024 appropriations process, the fiscal year 2025 defense appropriations bill includes the same outrageous policy riders that were rejected by Congress only two months ago,” Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the defense spending panel, said in a statement Tuesday.

McCollum criticized the provision forcing the president to transfer weapons to Israel in a Democratic summary accompanying the bill. “No other country has carte blanche on the use of their military assistance from the United States,” her office wrote.

The House in May passed a separate bill in a 224-187 vote with more stringent language intended to undo Biden’s hold on a single shipment of roughly 3,500 air-to-ground munitions for Israel. The last president to publicly withhold weapons shipments to Israel was Ronald Reagan in 1982 after seeing pictures of civilians killed in Lebanon.

Biden said he withheld the shipment in April, which includes 500- and 2,000-pound bombs, out of concern Israel would use them in Rafah, where more than half of the Gaza Strip’s population have fled since the Israeli campaign against the militant group Hamas started in October. Nonetheless, he has approved several other arms transfers for Israel.

Despite warnings from the White House, Israel proceeded with its Rafah offensive, displacing roughly 1 million Palestinians and further curtailing humanitarian aid deliveries.

In addition to the bill’s annual $500 million in aid for Israeli missile defenses, the FY25 legislation provides $80 million above the president’s budget request for anti-tunneling cooperation with the U.S. and another $55 million above the budget request for counter-drone development, including “directed energy and laser technology cooperation.”

The State Department spending bill for FY25, which the foreign aid panel advanced Tuesday, also includes Israel’s annual $3.3 billion in foreign military financing. And the foreign aid bill Congress passed in April includes another $14 billion in Israel military aid.

Both the FY25 Pentagon and State Department spending bills ban funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which delivers humanitarian assistance in the Gaza Strip, drawing further ire from McCollum.

“According to a March report from the World Food Program, nearly half the population — over 1 million people — have completely exhausted their food supplies,” she said Wednesday. “Palestinian civilians, many of them children, are struggling with catastrophic hunger and starvation.”

Other policy riders Democrats oppose include moving jurisdiction of U.S. military operations with Mexico to Southern Command — a bid that failed last year. Calvert and Republicans argue that moving Mexico to Southern Command would better enable counter-fentanyl trafficking operations against Mexican drug cartels.

Additionally, the bill would ban the Pentagon from using funds to implement Biden’s climate executive orders, including one that would prevent the Defense Department — the world’s largest institutional fossil fuel emitter — from disclosing carbon emissions.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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