U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testify during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Oct. 31, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Congress must approve funding for both Israel and Ukraine if it wants to avoid being dragged into a direct conflict with Russia or emboldening terrorist organizations, two top Biden administration officials told senators Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee that there would be long-lasting implications for U.S. national security if Congress doesn’t approve more than $105 billion in proposed funding.
“There is no doubt in my mind that if (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is allowed to continue to act with impunity that not only would he not stop in Ukraine, but potentially go to a NATO country next, which would invoke our Article 5 obligations to our allies and partners,” Blinken said. “It would send a message to would-be aggressors everywhere in the world that if he can get away with it, so can we.”
Article 5 says that if one country within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is attacked, it is seen as an attack on them all. That can lead to all NATO countries entering the war to defend the NATO ally.
Austin told senators that if the United States fails to provide ongoing support to Ukraine or to Israel in its war with Hamas, it would harm national security.
“If we fail to lead, the cost and threats to the United States will only grow,” Austin said. “We must not give our friends, our rivals, or our foes any reason to doubt America’s resolve.”
Withdrawing military assistance to Ukraine, Austin said, would ensure “Putin will only get stronger and he will be successful in doing what he wants to do in acquiring his neighbors’ sovereign territory.”
Biden administration makes $105 billion ask of Congress for aid
The Biden administration earlier this month asked Congress to provide more than $105 billion in additional funding to bolster military assistance to Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and U.S. border security.
House Republicans released a $14 billion spending bill for Israel on Monday, though the legislation doesn’t include funding for Ukraine, Taiwan or border security. The measure would pay for the new spending by clawing back some of the Internal Revenue Service funding that Democrats included in their 2022 reconciliation package.
Democrats have called that a non-starter and are working on a bipartisan version of the supplemental spending package in the Senate.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, said lawmakers must “appreciate the nuances that differentiate each of these challenges, as well as the ways in which they are all interconnected.”
“We have to see the big picture without losing sight of the human reality on the ground; the fact that in the middle of every conflict, are civilians — residents displaced from their homes, hostages torn from their families, people facing obstacles getting basic medical services, and kids and families who desperately need food and water,” Murray said.
Protesters disrupted the beginning of the hearing, standing up to call on Congress to protect children inside Gaza or to press for a cease fire between Israel and the Hamas terrorist organization. U.S. Capitol Police removed them from the room and the hearing continued.
U.S. working on process to get aid to civilians in Gaza
Blinken testified the United States has worked with the United Nations, Israel and Egypt on a process to get humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza, including a way to track where it goes.
But, Blinken said, he cannot guarantee Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, who on Oct. 7 attacked Israeli towns and killed hundreds of civilians and kidnapped other Israelis, won’t get some of the humanitarian assistance.
Israel in retaliation launched air strikes against Hamas. An Israeli ground offensive has now begun. Medical authorities in Gaza, which is run by Hamas, say 8,306 people have been killed, Reuters has reported.
“Can I promise you in this committee that there will be 100% delivery to the designated recipients? No,” Blinken testified. “There will inevitably be some spillage. We haven’t seen it to date, but I think we have to anticipate that. But the overwhelming majority of assistance thus far, is getting to people who need it.”
Nearly 60 trucks a day are entering Gaza, with hopes to have 100 trucks of humanitarian assistance entering the region daily by the end of this week, Blinken said.
The U.S. and allies are working on a way to get fuel into hospitals and desalination plants throughout Gaza, though no agreement has been reached on how to do that.
Blinken said he is focused “intensely” on getting 400 American citizens and their family members, totaling roughly 1,000 people, out of Gaza. He also apologized for messages going to those Americans saying the U.S. had secured a way for them to leave Gaza when it had not.
“I regret very much that we’ve had occasions where we thought that we would be able to move forward — which is one of the reasons we were in contact with people and suggest that they get in place to do that — only to find that the necessary procedures that had to be put in place to actually make that work couldn’t go forward,” Blinken said.
“Because Hamas controls what goes on for the most part inside of Gaza, unless it agrees then it’s going to be very difficult to get that done,” Blinken said.
Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley said his office has been contacted by a family from his home state that has gotten three different notifications from the U.S. government telling them to go to the Rafah Border Crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
The family was then unable to cross the border, leading Merkley to question why Americans cannot get out if trucks carrying humanitarian assistance can get into Gaza.
Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, ranking member on the committee, expressed support for providing funding for both Ukraine and Israel, saying it’s essential to ensure safety for the United States.
“We must recognize that our national security interests are being aggressively challenged by all these authoritarian actors in an effort to dismantle the international order that we established following World War II,” Collins said.
If the United States and its allies “fail to thwart these efforts, there will be dire consequences that will jeopardize our national security,” Collins said.
U.S.-Mexico border security funding included in request
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas didn’t testify at Tuesday’s hearing in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee because he was testifying in front of another congressional panel. But Collins said he will testify on the border security spending request next week.
Collins said that undocumented immigration and the movement of illegal drugs, including fentanyl, is a “real threat to our homeland must also be addressed.”
Blinken, responding to a question from West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, said that there are more than 25 million people “on the move” in the Western Hemisphere.
“We have a genuinely historic challenge,” Blinken said. “What we’re working to do from the perspective of the State Department is to work closely with other countries to get them to assume their share of responsibility in dealing with this migration.”
Capito said that wasn’t working and that “Americans are right to be extremely concerned about what’s happening here and how it’s intertwined with everything that’s happening globally.”
Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran said providing additional funding for border security is just as important as implementing immigration policy changes.
Moran also called on the spending panel to debate and vote on amendments to a national security supplemental spending bill.
“I think a markup would be important,” Moran said. “But I would certainly indicate that changes and input from this committee and from Congress are required — one, to make the package better and two, to make it more amenable toward passage by both the House and the Senate.”
Alabama GOP Sen. Katie Britt said that funding for the border is essential for any supplemental spending package.
“The national defense strategy of our nation promises that first we will defend our homeland,” Britt said. “In order to do that, we must secure our border.”
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent, said Congress should approve aid to Ukraine, Israel and the U.S. southern border in one spending bill, since they are “critical” for her home state and national security.
“China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are strengthening partnerships to undermine America’s interests and create chaos. While Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, and Ukraine, a critical supporter of America’s values, continue to be attacked,” Sinema said. “At the same time, at home in Arizona, we know there’s a clear crisis at our border and cartels are using the porous border to smuggle migrants and dangerous drugs into our state, weakening our national security.”
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