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Senate approves funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan

The Senate approved tens of billions in foreign aid on Tuesday, bringing to a close a congressional standoff that sharply divided Republicans over the conflict in Ukraine.

Seventy-nine senators, including a decided majority of Republicans, voted to send the $95 billion defense bill to President Joe Biden’s desk. The House passed the aid on Saturday.

The legislation provides over $34 billion to Israel and Taiwan, two U.S. allies that enjoy overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. But the Ukraine portion, totaling more than $60 billion, became a political lightning rod that jeopardized the entire bill for months.

Republicans have grown increasingly skeptical of the war in Ukraine, which entered its third year in February. That is due, in part, to former President Donald Trump’s reluctance to get entangled in foreign wars.

The United States has already sent around $75 billion to a conflict that some GOP lawmakers doubt Ukraine can win. However, the legislation found wider opposition due to its lack of border security provisions.

For a time, it seemed the aid would not make it through Congress. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), perhaps the loudest GOP backer of Ukraine in the Senate, attempted to broker a bipartisan deal on the border that would satisfy the Republican-led House, but it was rejected as insufficiently conservative.

Less than half of Senate Republicans voted to approve a similar version of the legislation in February.

That stalemate ended on Saturday when Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) allowed the Senate bill, with some changes, to be brought up for a vote.

Critically, it restructured $9 billion in economic assistance to Ukraine as a “forgivable loan” at the urging of Trump. A forced sale of TikTok, plus language allowing the U.S. to use seized Russian assets to pay for the war, were also added by the House.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) celebrated House passage as a win for the Democrats, who control the White House and Senate. In particular, Republicans failed to strip out billions in humanitarian assistance to Gaza as Israel wages a casualty-heavy campaign to root out the terrorist group Hamas. 

The legislation marked a victory for McConnell, too. Nine Republicans who opposed the defense bill in February voted in favor this time around, giving added legitimacy to the vote and serving as a rebuttal to a bloc of Ukraine skeptics in his conference.

He took a victory lap on Tuesday afternoon in a press conference where he declared, “I think we’ve turned the corner on the isolationist movement.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) praises support for Ukraine as the Senate is on track to pass $95 billion in war aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the Republicans who flipped his vote, expressed “regret” that the border was not addressed in the bill, citing opposition from the former president, but said, “We have to deal with what’s left for us to take care of in the world.”

Meanwhile, other Republicans remained dug-in, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who compared the vote to “legislative blackmail.”

To vote for Israel aid, “I have to drop my demand that the president enforce our immigration laws? I have to vote for billions of dollars to be spent on all kinds of programs around the world, including for people that are illegally entering this country?” Rubio asked in a Tuesday floor speech. “This is moral extortion.”

In total, 31 of 49 Senate Republicans voted for the foreign aid bill.

Democrats faced divisions of their own. A growing chorus of lawmakers, and even Biden himself, had begun to express support for conditions on aid to Israel. The calls reached fever pitch after the Israeli military killed seven aid workers with World Central Kitchen, a humanitarian group delivering food to Gazans.

The conflict threatened to divide Democrats on a portion of the aid bill that was originally joined with Ukraine money to provide political cover to Republicans and increase its chances of passage.

The outrage ebbed, however, after Iran launched a barrage of missiles and drones at Israel earlier this month in retaliation for an airstrike in Syria. No conditions were added to the legislation, and just two Democrats, plus Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, voted against the foreign aid on Tuesday.

Biden, who promised to sign the bill quickly once it clears the Senate, is already preparing a $1 billion weapons package for Ukraine. He signed an order in February authorizing a cutoff in military aid for countries that run afoul of international protections for civilians.

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