House and Senate clash over Taiwan military aid levels

WASHINGTON ― The Senate intends to provide Taiwan with grants to purchase more U.S. military equipment, but the chamber’s bill sets up a showdown with Republican House appropriators who want even more money for the nation while slashing the overall foreign aid budget.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has yet to send Congress details on the presidential drawdown package it is preparing to quickly give Taiwan weapons from U.S. stocks, which will require additional congressional appropriations.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday advanced the fiscal 2024 foreign aid spending bill 27-2, including $113 million in foreign military financing for Taiwan. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Deb Fischer of Nebraska were the two “no” votes.

The State Department administers the Foreign Military Financing grant program, and providing it to Taiwan for the first time aims to deter China from attacking the island. China views Taiwan as a rogue province and has threatened to retake the island by force if necessary.

That’s less generous than the House Appropriations Committee, which allocated $500 million for Taiwan when it passed its FY24 foreign aid bill 32-27 in a party-line vote last month.

Appropriators resisted efforts to provide foreign military financing to Taiwan last year amid concerns it would squeeze out other foreign aid priorities. But even as appropriators fund Taiwan aid, the House seeks to drastically lower the State Department and foreign aid top line.

The House foreign aid bill slashes that top line to $52.5 billion, 24% below President Joe Biden’s budget request. Conversely, the Senate’s foreign aid bill comes in at $61.8 billion — a slight increase over FY23.

The discrepancy in both the Taiwan aids levels and the top lines set up a showdown between the Senate and House later this year amid a broader government funding fight.

Foreign Military Financing grant assistance for Taiwan was one of the 10 bipartisan proposals the House’s Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party advanced in May.

Congress authorized up to $2 billion in annual Foreign Military Financing grants and up to another $2 billion in presidential drawdown authority in the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act. Drawdown authority is the same mechanism Biden has used to arm Ukraine.

The Pentagon is preparing a presidential drawdown authority package to transfer U.S. weapons to Taiwan. Congress will need to approve a separate spending package to backfill the weapons sent to Taiwan.

“I would anticipate the administration is going to have to submit a supplemental for the presidential drawdown for Taiwan,” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, told Defense News. “The administration has not been forthcoming yet on exactly what its schedule is for either the drawdown or the supplemental.”

Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, asked Congress on Thursday to fund both Foreign Military Financing and presidential drawdown authority while testifying before the China-focused committee.

There is currently a massive delivery backlog in U.S. weapons Taiwan purchased. Transferring American arms from existing stockpiles to Taiwan — as the U.S. has done for Ukraine — could alleviate that pressure since the systems would be immediately available for shipment.

“That would go a long way in expediting capability for Taiwan far faster, far sooner and with more significant adjustments than would adjustments to the pace of our foreign military sales,” Ratner told the committee.

Ratner also objected to using the term “backlog” to describe the arms sales delays to Taiwan, which have run as high as $19 billion. Numerous other U.S. allies and partners have complained of arms sales delays, too.

“There is a misunderstanding as it relates to U.S. support to Taiwan in terms of our foreign military sales,” Ratner said. “What we are facing is not a backlog, as is sometimes described, but rather concerns and slowdowns within all of our industrial base that is affecting our military production and defense-industrial base systematically, not individually, as it relates to Taiwan.”

While industrial base constraints are a key factor in the arms sales backlogs, a medley of lengthy technological and security reviews in the Foreign Military Sales process — alongside the sometimes slow pace of contracting and acquisition — can delay the process significantly as well.