Thursday, 02 November 2023 23:10

The Israel bill is a reminder that Trump-aligned Republicans run the House now

House Speaker Mike Johnson and members of the Senate GOP caucus walk through the Capitol on November 1, 2023.

Although Rep. Mike Johnson was a relative unknown when he took the House speakership, one of the few things that’s quickly become apparent is how closely aligned he is with the MAGA wing of the party. He’s made that obvious in his first major legislative action: an aid package for Israel that advances far-right priorities, including antipathy for the IRS and aversion to Ukraine funding.

As various reports have documented, Johnson was one of the House members who previously voted to overturn the 2020 election results, and has long espoused hardline positions opposing LGBTQ rights and abortion rights. He’s also, as the Israel bill demonstrates, willing to continue advancing the goals of the party’s right flank.

Johnson’s Israel aid package contains $14.3 billion in support for Israel amid its ongoing war with Hamas. But it does not contain new money for the war in Ukraine, border security funding, and security aid for Taiwan. President Joe Biden, Democratic Senate leaders, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to fund all those priorities in a single legislative package, and they’ve opposed decoupling them. (Johnson has stated that he’s not against more money for Ukraine, but that he’d rather tackle that question in a separate package unrelated to Israel.)

The bill passed the House on Thursday night. Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the bill, though 12 staunch allies of Israel voted for it. Republicans nearly unanimously supported it. But the measure is dead on arrival in the Senate, amid opposition from leaders of both parties, and from the White House.

As well as decoupling aid to Ukraine and Taiwan from support for Israel, the House bill would also cut funding allocated to the IRS through the Inflation Reduction Act. Additionally, Johnson’s bill does not contain humanitarian aid for Gaza, which Biden has also requested.

Several of these provisions echo longstanding conservative demands.

For months, the GOP has steadily begun to turn against additional aid to Ukraine as former President Donald Trump has called for conditioning further funding on federal agencies providing information about the Biden family’s business practices and reiterated his “America First” isolationist approach to foreign policy. Once, only a smaller group of Republicans, led by the likes of Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, were willing to speak out on the record against more Ukraine funding. Recent House votes on the subject, however, suggest opposition to Ukraine aid is only growing among members of the party.

In July, 70 Republicans voted for an amendment to the annual defense bill that would prohibit more US military funding to Ukraine. In September, that number went up, with 93 House Republicans voting in favor of a similar amendment to the Pentagon appropriations bill.

Anti-Ukraine sentiment is spreading in the Senate as well. McConnell has made a public relations push in recent weeks to try to convince his caucus of the need for more Ukraine aid. His rhetoric doesn’t appear to be having much effect, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) calling McConnell’s plans “out of touch,” and McConnell deputy Sen. John Thune (R-SD) noting that despite McConnell’s best efforts, “We have a number of our members who are not for Ukraine funding.”

Much like his desire to uncouple Israeli aid from other foreign policy initiatives, Johnson’s plan for paying for the Israel package has its roots on the far right. The legislation seeks to go after Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, a measure Republicans have often railed against for its investments in green energy tax credits, health care, and the IRS. Specifically, the bill would reappropriate funding originally meant to go to the IRS — an agency that’s been the subject of the GOP’s anti-government sentiment and past allegations of bias.

The GOP has tried repeatedly to roll back the Inflation Reduction Act’s $80 billion in funding to the IRS, which they misleadingly claim is going to be used to hire tax agents to harangue everyday Americans — including at gunpoint, some on the far right have incorrectly stated. In reality, the funding is intended to boost the agency’s ability to track down wealthy individuals who’ve failed to pay their taxes, to improve its IT capabilities, and to replace a retiring workforce. About 1 percent of those new jobs are expected to have a law enforcement component, and may require employees to carry firearms, though few ordinary Americans are likely to come across an armed IRS official.

Defunding the IRS has nevertheless become a goal of many on the right, and the new Israel bill would directly contribute to that.

Johnson has claimed that repurposing the IRS funds is a fiscally responsible “offset” and a way to address America’s most pressing immediate needs, like providing Israel military assistance without having to spend too much. However, the Congressional Budget Office actually estimates that the measure could add $26 billion to the deficit because it would reduce the revenue the IRS is able to bring in over the next decade. The IRS, meanwhile, says the Israel bill would actually cost the government $90 billion in that same timeframe.

The Israel package is just one bill. But it does highlight how Johnson could lead as speaker and which priorities he may spotlight in this role. He’s also made other comments — including claiming that it’s “very likely” Biden has committed impeachable offenses, which Republicans don’t have evidence of. Collectively, these statements and policies point to how he’ll lead.

The legislation is dead on arrival in the Senate

The fact that the Israel aid bill has no chance of making it through the Senate, where both Democrats and some Republicans — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — would oppose it, further suggests it’s meant more as a messaging vehicle than a serious piece of legislation.

Senate Democrats and a number of more centrist Republicans have said they’re interested in seeing an aid package including both funding for Israel and Ukraine, as well as humanitarian aid for Gaza. Biden’s original request contained $61 billion in funding for Ukraine aid, $9 billion in humanitarian aid for Israel, Gaza, and Ukraine, and $7.4 billion in security aid for Taiwan and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, in addition to $14.3 billion in military aid for Israel.

“Speaker Johnson and House Republicans released a totally unserious and woefully inadequate package that omitted aid to Ukraine, omitted humanitarian assistance to Gaza, no funding for the Indo-Pacific, and made funding for Israel conditional on hard-right, never-going-to-pass proposals,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a floor speech this week.

Democratic lawmakers have also opposed plans to use existing IRS funding for Israel aid and argued that it’s an attempt to defund the agency’s efforts to go after wealthy tax cheats. Because the IRS has been underfunded for years, it hasn’t had the resources to fully enforce tax law against those with the means to evade it. Were the IRS able to pursue such actions effectively, it could result in substantial new revenue for the federal government. In September, the IRS announced that it’s launching an effort targeting 1,600 millionaires — and procuring back taxes from them — using some of the new funds it’s received from the IRA.

“House Republicans are setting a dangerous precedent by suggesting that protecting national security or responding to natural disasters is contingent upon cuts to other programs,” House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said in a statement.

Johnson’s Republican bill puts the House and Senate on a collision course in the coming weeks, and foreshadows what future fights between the two chambers could look like over other must-pass bills. It’s not yet clear whether Johnson will look to take a more moderate stance as time goes on, especially on issues like keeping the government open. But if he continues to embrace conservative priorities and related positions, Congress will likely struggle to pass those bills as well.