Ukraine, Israel aid package heads to Biden as Congress caps monthslong struggle

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WASHINGTON – After six months, the wrinkle of election-year politics and the threat of a House leadership coup, Congress has passed a long-awaited $95 billion foreign aid bill that has global implications.

The Senate on Tuesday approved the package – which will funnel $60 billion to support Ukraine, $17 billion for Israel, $9 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza and elsewhere, and $8 billion for allies in the Indo-Pacific – with a bipartisan 79-18 vote.

It also includes legislation that would force TikTok's Chinese parent company to divest from the social media app or face an effective ban in the United States. Unlike in the House, where lawmakers voted for each of the provisions independently, senators had to cast a single vote for or against all of the provisions combined.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday called it "critical legislation" that is "urgently needed" and signed it into law Wednesday.

"Today the Senate sends a unified message to the entire world: America will always defend democracy in its hour of need," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Tuesday's vote concludes a lengthy debate across both chambers of Congress that reflected shifting attitudes within the GOP about the United States' role in the world, pitting Republican leaders against their own rank-and-file members and, at times, the de facto leader of the party, former President Donald Trump.

A sizable portion of the Republican conference in both chambers voted against aid to Ukraine, which has been fighting back against a Russian invasion since February 2022. Opponents of additional aid argue the U.S. has already done enough to help Ukraine and that taxpayer funds would be better spent on domestic priorities or paying down the nation's estimated $1.5 trillion budget deficit.

Proponents of the foreign aid framed it as an investment that would keep the country out of a war – that a victory in Ukraine would prompt Russian President Vladimir Putin to attack European allies that the U.S. is sworn to defend under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They eventually prevailed as Republicans and Democrats in both chambers came together to pass the aid.

"This is an important day for America and a very important day for freedom-loving countries around the world," Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday, adding that there was "difficulty" on the Republican side in garnering support for Ukraine but that things are moving "in the right direction."

"I think we’ve turned the corner on the isolationist movement," he said. "I think we've made some progress and I think it's going to have to continue because we've got big problems – China, Russia, Iran ... you could argue that this is a more challenging time right now than it was leading up to World War II."

Nine Senate Republicans voted in favor of the legislation despite voting against it when the Senate considered the package in February.

Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., was one of those who switched his vote. He said he and a group of other conservative senators began working with former President Donald Trump and Republican leadership in both chambers to come up with a package that more Republicans could support.

Provisions to make around $9.5 billion in aid to Ukraine a loan instead of a grant and to seize Russian foreign assets to fund Ukraine's fight were part of that, he said.

Trump posted on Truth Social last week that Ukraine's survival is important to the U.S., despite long-held public skepticism of Ukraine aid.

"I think Trump had more to do with that than we did," Mullin told reporters Tuesday. "The idea that Trump was part of it really helped a lot of people know that – well, it's political and gave political cover, to some degree."

House Speaker Mike Johnson initially resisted the foreign aid package but ended up playing a pivotal role in advancing the legislation at the risk of his job. Multiple hard-right lawmakers have threatened to unseat him, as they did with former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, for putting a government spending bill to avoid a shutdown up for a House floor vote. That threat remains a possibility when the House returns from a weeklong recess on Monday.

Johnson had opposed additional funding for Ukraine before he was elevated to the speakership after McCarthy's ouster. But after multiple intelligence briefings and meetings with multiple factions of his conference, he emerged in recent weeks with a starkly different perspective.

"To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys. My son is going to begin in the Naval Academy this fall. This is a live-fire exercise for me as it is so many American families," Johnson told reporters Saturday. "This is not a game, this is not a joke."

A border battle and mounting pressure

Biden first requested the funding in mid-October, just weeks after Hamas invaded Israel and kicked off months of retaliatory strikes in Gaza, calling for the U.S. to stand with its allies in a crucial moment.

Republicans demanded sweeping border security changes in exchange for their support. A bipartisan working group in the Senate brokered a deal to include what it said were the most significant changes to migration policy in decades.

But Trump, en route to capturing the 2024 GOP nomination for president, slammed the proposal as insufficient. Johnson declared the deal would never pass the House, and Senate Republicans voted it down. The Senate passed the foreign aid plan without the border provisions in February.

When it reached the House, Republicans again demanded border security provisions be attached to the legislation. They refused to advance the foreign aid bill for months as Johnson attempted to push the Senate to take up the House's hard-line border bill.

Meanwhile, Johnson kept facing mounting political pressure to act from both Democrats and moderate Republicans. The specter of a backdoor method to force a vote hung over the negotiations. And Johnson was deeply out of alignment with the other three congressional leaders – including McConnell, for whom passing Ukraine aid became a part of his legacy.

The Biden administration's intelligence briefings – and the change to a loan – helped clinch the deal.

Israel, Gaza divide Democrats

As Republicans dealt with infighting in their conference, Democrats grappled with their own divisions.

A group of progressive lawmakers resisted sending additional aid to Israel, as the country's war against Hamas killed tens of thousands of Palestinians and created dire humanitarian conditions in the Gaza strip.

Frustration over the administration's approach to Israel reached a boiling point among Democrats when seven aid workers were killed in a strike earlier this month. Calls for conditioning aid to Israel – directing how the aid can be used and enforcing violations of that use – grew louder.

Thirty-seven progressive Democrats in the House voted against the funding for Israel in the House because it did not add conditions, though that represented only about a third of the House Progressive Caucus.

"I support so much that's in this. We absolutely have to provide Ukraine with aid, I support the humanitarian assistance that's in this. I even support the TikTok provision," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told USA TODAY. "But the conditions in Gaza are horrific. ... I support defensive aid for Israel, but I can't support sending more bombs when the style of warfare in Gaza is producing enormous civilian casualties and the restriction of aid is producing famine."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate passes $95 billion foreign aid bill, heads to Biden