WASHINGTON: Democratic and Republican members of Congress scrambled Tuesday to seal a $225 million boost to Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system before they break this week for a month-long recess.
As the Gaza war escalates, Israel is proving to be among the few subjects uniting lawmakers. Members of both parties have introduced legislation backing the Jewish state, condemning the Palestinian militant group Hamas and seeking a tougher Iran policy. Iron Dome is the priority, but the House and Senate are at odds over process.
No money for Israel will be included in a larger House spending bill focused on border security, Rep. Hal Rogers, the Appropriations Committee's Republican chairman, said Tuesday. He said military support for Israel would be addressed separately, though not necessarily this week. That means the effort could slip to September.
The Republican-led House's approach is at odds with the Democratic-controlled Senate, which wants the Iron Dome money approved with border security and wildfire assistance in a single package before lawmakers take their break on Thursday or Friday.
Israel escalated its operations against Hamas on Tuesday as the conflict entered its fourth week. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a "prolonged" campaign. The violence has killed more than 1,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and more than 50 Israeli soldiers and three civilians.
Amid a daily barrage of Palestinian rocket fire, Iron Dome has been credited with knocking hundreds out of the sky. Even as the Obama administration presses for a cease-fire, it has backed Israel's request to replenish its missile defense stockpiles while it is fighting, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking Congress to approve the measure.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said he supported Hagel's request because Iron Dome "has afforded Israel some protection from indiscriminate rockets."
He has proposed a separate measure, which Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, signaled he might be open to.
But McConnell criticized efforts that he said would impose a cease-fire on Israel that doesn't meet its military objectives and rewards Hamas for a "campaign of terror."
"I support any effort which brings this campaign to an end in a manner that increases Israel's security," McConnell said Tuesday. "That means that Hamas cannot be left with a large stockpile of missiles and rockets, cannot be left with infiltration tunnels - they must be destroyed. Hamas cannot be allowed to aggressively rest, refit and build up weapons stockpiles."
House Republican aides said the Senate could deal with the issue as a freestanding bill that the House would easily approve.
"They'll be strong bipartisan support for Iron Dome. There always has been in situation like this," said Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican.
While the administration and lawmakers agree on providing missile defense, other actions in Congress are more contentious.
In a weekend call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama stressed the need for an "immediate, unconditional, humanitarian cease-fire." Obama, a White House statement said, suggested larger questions would then come later.
Such talk has alarmed lawmakers of both parties.
In a letter last week to Obama, Democrat Sens. Chuck Schumer Ben Cardin and Republican Lindsey Graham, said a cease-fire must eliminate Hamas' ability to fire rockets and place no restrictions on the Jewish state.
"Israel must be allowed to take any actions necessary to remove those threats," the senators wrote, stating a position that presaged by two days the Israeli government's unanimous rejection of Secretary of State John Kerry's cease-fire proposal.
Over days of intense diplomacy, Kerry has tried to secure commitments from both sides that would lead to peace. Congress, by contrast, has focused its energies on Palestinian actions and critics of Israel.