Congress Can't Pass Israel Aid Until House Republicans Find Consensus : The NPR Politics Podcast Republicans must pick a Speaker of the House before Congress can pass any legislation — and are facing new pressure to move quickly in order to respond to a war in Israel that has left hundreds of civilians dead, including at least 14 Americans.

This episode: campaign correspondent Sarah McCammon, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and political correspondent Susan Davis.

The podcast is produced by Casey Morell and Elena Moore. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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Congress Can't Pass Israel Aid Until House Republicans Find Consensus

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EMMA JONES: Hi. This is Emma Jones (ph) from Greenville, S.C. I just got done walking around the Library of Congress while my baby naps and my other two kids rest up from all the walking around the National Mall this morning. This podcast was recorded at...

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

3:09 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, October 10, 2023.

JONES: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll be on my way to the National Archives, this time with my kids. All right. Here's the show.

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MCCAMMON: Hope they're learning a lot and enjoying DC.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The Library of Congress and the archives are low-key, underrated great places to visit when you come to D.C.

MCCAMMON: They really are.

KEITH: And shorter lines.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: That's very true.

MCCAMMON: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Sarah McCammon. I cover the presidential campaign.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

MCCAMMON: This weekend's brutal assault on Israel by Hamas militants has left thousands injured or killed, with implications worldwide, including here in the United States. On Saturday, Hamas launched a large-scale terrorist attack on Israel, killing families in their homes, gunning down young people at a music festival and taking hostages, including children, from Israel into Gaza. Israeli officials say more than 900 Israelis have died at the hands of militants or from missiles launched by Hamas. Palestinian health officials estimate at least 680 people have died after Israel responded by firing missiles into Gaza. In a speech from the White House, President Biden said the United States stands with Israel against terrorism...

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The brutality of Hamas - this bloodthirstiness - brings to mind the worst rampages of ISIS. This is terrorism. But sadly for the Jewish people, it's not new.

MCCAMMON: ...And spoke on the state of the war and the U.S. response this afternoon.

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BIDEN: When Congress returns, we're going to ask them to take urgent action to fund the national security requirements of our critical partners. This is not about party or politics. It's about the security of our world, the security of the United States of America.

MCCAMMON: Today on the pod - the political implications in the U.S. of the attack on Israel. So, Tam, let's start with this. What is the U.S. role going to be here?

KEITH: Well, in his remarks, President Biden expressed full-throated support for Israel. He said it twice. We stand with Israel. We stand with Israel - repeating it for emphasis. And the U.S., in addition to being a long-standing close ally of Israel, has American families who are affected by this. The president announced that at least 14 American citizens were killed in the attacks, and he said that the U.S. now knows that there are American citizens that are among those being held hostage by Hamas. The national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, just told reporters that there are at least 20 Americans who are unaccounted for. Now, he doesn't know what has happened to them. He doesn't - he said, you know, don't assume that they are all being held hostage. But that is a lot of families who have a lot of worry. And so part of what President Biden was doing is just standing there in solidarity.

MCCAMMON: How might that reality, Tam - that this is not just about helping a close ally, this is also about Americans - how might that amplify the U.S. role here?

KEITH: The U.S. is going to help Israel try to get these hostages back. That is what President Biden has said, is that hostage recovery is going to be part of the cooperation. Also, the U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier group. And I don't want to get into all the military tactics and things like that, but there are a lot of U.S. military resources headed to the region, in part to be a deterrence to other countries that - and other actors who also hate Israel who may get ideas. And President Biden had a message for them - essentially, don't get any ideas. There is, in this moment - and, you know, U.S. politics around Israel are actually quite complicated. But in this moment, the White House is essentially saying, things are quite simple. The U.S. stands with Israel, and they're going to do everything that they can to support Israel as it defends itself. That was the phrase that the president has been using.

MCCAMMON: Right. So resources going to Israel already, and there are calls for more. And, Sue, this is all happening at a time when Congress is completely unable to act. House Republicans don't have a speaker, can't reach consensus on one, which means they can't pass legislation. I don't have to tell you. What does this political fight mean at a time when President Biden is asking Congress to provide more aid for Israel?

DAVIS: Well, we're going to find out really soon if the attack on Israel fundamentally shifted the calculus in the speaker fight. There's already senior Republicans, people like House Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul, who, over the weekend, said, you know, this is why I thought it was dangerous to remove a speaker in the middle of a Congress, that it projects an image of instability to the world of our democracy. But that, coupled with the attack over the weekend, has created an urgency for Congress to look like it has its act together. It's unclear if they're going to be able to elect a speaker this week. They're trying to, but it's certainly anything but definitive.

And you're absolutely right. The House right now is being led by Patrick McHenry - he's a Republican from North Carolina - under the title of speaker pro tem. He exists basically just to preside over the election of a new speaker. And until there is a speaker, Congress is unable to pass things like any aid packages to Israel. McCaul also noted that he has a resolution condemning Hamas that he would like to see get a House vote. And none of that's going to be possible until Republicans can resolve this impasse.

MCCAMMON: U.S. support for Israel has historically been a bipartisan issue, but, Sue, could this crisis force House Republicans to put aside their differences and get something done?

DAVIS: I think so. You know, there are - there's certainly some splintering on the far left when it comes to Israel. There was, you know, one or two statements from elected congressional Democrats sort of criticizing Israel for the attack. But that is a far minority view, at least in the elected representatives of Congress. I think Congress overwhelmingly would vote in support of any aid to Israel or any other symbolic resolution. It seems unlikely that, at least in the short term, Congress will be divided over supporting Israel.

We've seen with other conflicts, like in Ukraine, often there is overwhelming bipartisan support at the beginning. And, depending on how long it goes and how much support or money is needed from the U.S., the debate can get more complicated. But in the short term, it would be very hard to see how this would divide Congress. Now, I do imagine that there will be a tremendous amount of criticism from Republicans towards the Biden administration, but that's different than denying them any aid package they might be asking for.

MCCAMMON: All right. Time for a quick break. More in just a second.

And we're back. There's another fight, one we've talked about in passing here. But Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama has been unilaterally blocking military confirmations because of his objections to the Defense Department's policies designed to allow abortion access for service members. Where does that stand, Sue?

DAVIS: Tuberville's office was quick to put out a statement saying that the attack on Israel does not change his calculation on the blockade at all. I would note that the Senate is out of session right now. I think sometimes that these debates become more clear when they get back into town, and that won't be until next week. But it is certainly refocusing the fact that there are hundreds of empty military positions in the U.S. right now. And also there are a number of ambassadorships waiting to be confirmed. Most notably, former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is pending confirmation to be ambassador to Israel. Senate Majority Leader Schumer's office has said that they want to make that at the top of the agenda when Congress returns. It seems likely that he has the votes to get through the Senate because he has already been Senate-confirmed once before for his past position. So I do think it's going to change the agenda there.

And also, one of the things I'm watching for is to see if the debate over aiding Israel gets conflated with the debate over aiding Ukraine. There are already talk among some Republican and Democratic lawmakers that this - they might try to link the two, make it a bigger, broader international aid package, even potentially tying it to things like U.S. border security. And so I think that the spending debate only got more complicated because of what happened over the weekend.

MCCAMMON: We've talked about the politics among Republicans. Tam, President Biden we heard offering unequivocal, full-throated support for Israel, but polls show declining support for Israel among some Democrats. Is that a concern for the president as he faces reelection next year?

KEITH: President Biden and his support for Israel go way back to his earliest days as a U.S. senator. He is definitely very pro-Israel and arguably more pro-Israel than the center of his party. But it is highly unlikely that he is going to change on this front, reelection consequences or not. I mean, the challenge that President Biden faces more broadly is trying to keep the progressive part of his coalition happy enough that they will vote in November of 2024. And they're doing all kinds of things like a new office on gun violence prevention and various climate-related actions and going after junk fees. All of that is also aimed at shoring up that progressive part of his base. Going after voters on the far, far left on the Israel issue is just not something you're going to see him do.

MCCAMMON: And, Tam, let's talk about the people who are running against President Biden. Former President Trump is at the top of the Republican heap there. What's he saying about all of this? And what about the other candidates?

KEITH: There is a pretty uniform reaction on the Republican candidate side of things to say that somehow what happened in Israel is Joe Biden's fault, one way or another. And one thing that many of them have keyed in on is the recent deal to secure the release of U.S. citizens who had been held prisoner in Iran. As part of the deal, the prisoner swap to get those prisoners out of Iran, the U.S. agreed to release funds that were - Iranian funds, $6 billion - that were being held by South Korea. Those funds were then moved to a Qatari central bank and were designated to only be able to be used for humanitarian assistance and medicine for the Iranian people.

Well, Republicans, both in Congress and the presidential candidates, are saying that somehow that money being made available to Iran caused this attack or aided this attack. The White House has pushed back on this very strongly, pointing out that none of the money has actually been turned over to Iran yet, that it is only designated for humanitarian aid. And also importantly, although there are strong ties between Iran and Hamas, at this moment, U.S. intelligence does not have a direct link in terms of planning or execution between Iran and Hamas. And the Israeli government also has not been able to draw that direct line. That has not stopped Republicans from making this an issue. And the latest front in this is Republican members of Congress and candidates saying that President Biden should refreeze that $6 billion, put that money back on hold.

DAVIS: The thing, though, is that Biden has a lot riding on this, too. Biden running for reelection needs to have successes in Ukraine, in Israel, against China. I mean, the pillars of the foreign policy agenda are critical for him here, especially when you consider that Biden - part of the case for Biden in 2020 was he's been the man in the arena for the better part of the past 50 years, that he has connections and relationships all over the world, that he can lead through crisis. And I think if things are seen as going poorly in any combination of those conflicts or foreign policy dynamics, it could be very bad for him politically, especially when you consider that historically, voters have tended to trust the Republican Party more when it comes to matters of national security. And I think it's - I think it is a vulnerability for Biden that he has to be very careful about, how not only he portrays this, but guiding U.S. policy on all of these fronts over the next year or more.

MCCAMMON: All right. Let's leave it there for today. And a note about tomorrow's show - we're going to be keeping an eye on that House speaker's race, and we will be back with you on that as soon as we have more to report. I'm Sarah McCammon. I cover the presidential campaign.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

MCCAMMON: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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