Supplemental Woes: US Congress unable to pass Biden’s military aid package

Peace Advocate December 2023

by Brian Garvey

Two months ago, in the wake of the October 7th Hamas attacks on Israel, President Biden made a primetime speech to the nation. He asked for the US Congress, and the American people to approve over 105 billion dollars in supplemental spending for “critical national security,” including funding for Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan, and the Southern US border. Despite a large portion of the request being devoted to weapons spending and law enforcement, types of spending that have largely been uncontroversial for lawmakers of both parties, Congress was unable to approve the bill. With the holiday season close upon us, both House and Senate have entered recess, ensuring that the request will go unfulfilled until the new year. Though the future of the request remains uncertain, the difficulty in passing it sends a signal. Support for this kind of national security spending is becoming less palatable.

So, what’s in the bill? The lion’s share of the package is support for two nations involved in bloody conflicts, Ukraine and Israel. It includes over $61 billion for Ukraine, more than half of which would go to weapons and ammunition. The other half would go toward providing economic, logistical, and intelligence assistance. Over 14 billion dollars in aid to Israel includes over $8 billion worth of weapons, including artillery shells, precision bombs, and ammunition for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

Until now, support in the US Congress for sending funds to both nations has been overwhelming and bipartisan. In the case of Ukraine, Congress has approved, “at least $137 billion since February 25, 2022. Two-thirds of that is military aid,” according to Stephen Semler, a military spending analyst and co-founder of the Security Policy Reform Institute. The response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 paired the vast majority of Republican lawmakers, minus a few mostly pro-Trump GOP members who have voted against the funding, with the entire Democratic Party. That unity has begun to fray. New Speaker of the House Mike Johnson has been unwilling to pass new Ukraine aid without including more border funding in a likely nod to members of the GOP caucus who ousted his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy.

US military support for Israel has a much longer history. “Since 1946, Israel has collected $124.3 billion in military aid from the United States, including $12.4 billion since 2020.” This includes a guaranteed $3.8 billion per year through 2026, a result of a bill passed during the last year of the Obama presidency. While the House of Representatives was able to pass a standalone GOP-led bill to send over $14 billion in aid to Israel on November 3rd on mostly party lines and a nearly unanimous 412-10 resolution expressing solidarity with Israel, they have been unable to deliver a compromise that will get the funding to President Biden’s desk.

So, what’s causing the difficulties for the legislation? For almost 2 years Republicans and Democrats have been trying to out-do each other in condemnations of Russia’s war in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But after a Ukrainian counter-offensive now viewed as a failure, the war has settled into what even the Ukrainian Commander General Valery Zaluzhny has described as a stalemate, though he has since recanted that view. Back in August a CNN poll found that the “Majority of Americans oppose more US aid for Ukraine in war with Russia.” A sense that the US may be throwing “good money after bad” may finally be reaching Capitol Hill.

The military aid to Israel may be less controversial among lawmakers, but support for President Biden’s handling of the conflict in Gaza is not strong. According to the latest New York Times/Siena poll, 57% of the public disapproves. Support for the president is hemorrhaging among young voters, a key demographic for him. Voters between 18 and 29 years of age now support Donald Trump by 49 percent to 43 percent. Lack of support for aid to Israel from the base of the Democratic Party may be contributing to a lack of urgency among Democratic representatives and senators.

The rest of the supplemental bill is a national security hodge-podge. It includes over 9 billion dollars of unspecified humanitarian aid to Ukrainian, Israeli, and Palestinian civilians, though “the White House did not say how much assistance each group could expect to receive,” according to the New York Times. It is noteworthy that of the total package ($105.8 billion), less than 10% would go to humanitarian aid. Another 7.4 billion dollars, coming in the form of construction of new US military submarines and foreign military financing, would be allocated to counter China. The supplemental also includes over 13 billion dollars in money for border security, including “more border patrol officers, immigration judges, shelters and detention centers,” according to the New York Times, as well as “more than $1 billion for battling fentanyl trafficking.”

By packaging all these initiatives together, the Biden Administration may be trying to please everyone with different aspects of the bill, providing sweeteners to help the whole go down. So far, this strategy hasn’t worked. Instead, the combination of elements that might each be passable on their own have created one large bitter pill. Multiple factors are coming together to make it hard to swallow. Among them are partisanship ahead of the 2024 election, congressional dysfunction, and weariness of the American public for spending on foreign wars. Last week the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved $886 billion in US military spending, 310-118 and 87-13 respectively. While Congressional support for US military spending remains high, backing for the wars of US allies is becoming less certain.

Brian Garvey is the Assistant Director at Massachusetts Peace Action.