Congressional Democrats voted in aid to Israel, and now they want payback from the pro-Israel lobby: Drum Republicans out.
Behind the scenes, Democrats are pressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to make a case against Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives who voted overwhelmingly last week against the foreign operations appropriations bill, which included $2.44 billion for Israel.
Republican leaders opposed the overall $34.2 billion bill on two counts: It restores funding for overseas women’s health groups that use non-U.S. funds for abortions and represents 10 percent more than the amount appropriated last year by Congress.
So far, the Republican explanations seem to be sitting well with AIPAC, which currently has no intention of making an issue of the vote. The sense at the pro-Israel powerhouse is that the wrangling over abortion is politics as usual and that further down the line, when the bill comes back from Senate-House conferencing, it will have massive bipartisan backing.
AIPAC’s decision to refrain from criticizing the GOP is likely to reinforce the view in some Democratic circles that the pro-Israel lobby has been favoring Republicans in recent years.
The situation is drawing comments from House Democratic leaders.
"If there aren’t going to be consequences on the single most important piece of legislation for Israel, when will there be consequences?" Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) told JTA.
AIPAC released a statement "applauding" passage of the bill, noting its many pro-Israel components and mentioning only in passing the vote without noting the strong Republican opposition.
That infuriates Democrats, who have a keen memory of the hard time AIPAC gave them in 2001 when some Democrats voted against the first foreign operations appropriation under Bush because it slashed Africa spending. At the time AIPAC made it clear to members that it would publicize yeas and nays.
Democrats note that in 2001, a minority from their party voted their conscience in opposing the spending bill, whereas the Republican leadership was behind the latest vote.
One embittered former congressional staffer, asking not to be identified, said it "would
have made the front page" if a majority of Democrats voted against Israel funding.
AIPAC declined to comment on the complaints by Democrats.
The bill, which includes $2.4 billion for Israel’s defense spending and $40 million for refugee resettlement, passed 241-178. Of the 178 votes against, 164 were Republican.
Republicans anticipated the blowback.
In the same letter he wrote to GOP members instructing them to vote against the foreign operations bill, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) reminded them to sign a letter to AIPAC explaining their opposition.
"Members are advised that the Leadership has drafted a letter to AIPAC affirming Republican support for Israel funding, not withstanding final passage of this bill," Boehner wrote in a P.S. to the e-mail. "This letter will be available for Members to sign at the Leadership Desk on the floor tonight."
Republicans dismissed the complaints by Democrats as politicking.
"The one thing that lacks any credibility is the Democrats trying to paint Republicans who have governed as the most pro-Israel Congress ever" from 1994 to 2006, said Matthew Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director.
"Democrats are playing politics with the foreign ops bill and making it difficult for the Republicans to support it," he said, referring to party leaders insisting on restoring funding that anti-abortion groups oppose.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House majority leader, excoriated such explanations in a statement to JTA.
"It is unconscionable that Republicans would support amendments cutting money from the foreign operations bill that directly impacts U.S. funding to Israel," he said. "Democrats stand with Israel and we will not allow cuts to go through that are irresponsible at best and downright dangerous at worst."
Republicans scrambled to make the pro-Israel case with a number of amendments. One by Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana that reaffirmed an existing policy banning assistance to groups that reject Israel’s existence passed 390-30.
Pence’s amendment concerning aid to the Palestinian Authority virtually repeated language already in the main bill, baffling the Democratic leadership.
"I am prepared to accept this amendment," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, who is Jewish. "It is my understanding that it reiterates the restrictions on direct aid to the P.A. that are already in current law that are clearly included in this bill. I certainly expect the administration to abide by these restrictions, and I thank the gentleman for his amendment. In fact, I am wondering why the gentleman is offering the amendment if it is already included in the bill."
Another amendment that passed, moved by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), cuts funding to the U.N. Human Rights Council and to Saudi Arabia. The United States does not participate in the council, and aid to Saudi Arabia was set at $115,000 a drop in the aid bucket and mostly for programs that expose Saudis to democracy.
An amendment offered by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) would have cut foreign spending across the board by 5 percent, with an exemption for Israel funding. It failed.
Steve Israel, the Democratic lawmaker, said such amendments were beside the point: At the end of the day, the final overall vote is what counts.
"The only thing that counts in U.S. support for Israel is the foreign ops budget in its entirety," he said. "That is the litmus test."
Pence was among the minority of Republicans who defied Boehner and voted for the bill. Musgrave and Ros-Lehtinen voted against.