Sen. Lindsey Graham is preparing an emergency spending bill that will throw a monkey wrench into both the White House’s new aid agreement with Israel and Congress’s plans to renew sanctions on Iran.
The measure, which Graham is still drafting, would lump together $1.5 billion in extra appropriations for Israel next year with an extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, the law that outlines trade, energy, banking and defense sector restrictions on Iran’s nuclear and missile activities.
It is Graham’s response to the new, $38 billion 10-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) on foreign aid the White House just concluded with Israel – which he and other Republicans insist can’t prevent Congress from sending more money Israel’s way.
To the South Carolina Republican, the two issues go hand-in-hand – the money for Israel, he explained, is “so Israel can deal with the threats that emanate from Iran.”
“I want the Ayatollah to know, from Congress’s point of view, we haven’t forgotten about you when it comes to sanctions,” Graham explained. “The more provocative Iran becomes, the more assistance we’re going to give [to Israel].”
It isn’t the first time members of Congress have urged more aid to Israel to counterbalance last year’s multilateral nuclear pact with Iran. Graham also isn’t the only Republican who thinks the MOU doesn’t go far enough to help Israel.
But to date, renewal of the basic Iran sanctions regime has not been linked to specific dollar amounts for Israel, or to measures flouting the White House’s now-completed aid deal with Israel.
As part of the deal, the Israeli government promised to give back any extra money that Congress appropriates for it.
That doesn’t sit well with the legislative branch, especially those in the House used to wielding the power of the purse.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) spokeswoman AshLee Strong said Wednesday that “we will continue to appropriate the funds that we determine are necessary to meet the needs of our shared security interests in the Middle East.”
Graham was more blunt about his assessment of the MOU.
“It’s not binding on the Congress,” he said flatly.
But it is not clear Graham has support up the chain for his measure, which he said he plans to introduce next week.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) were both surprised that Graham was working on such a bill, deferring comment until they had a chance to contact Graham and review it.
Graham’s approach is a departure from the panel chiefs’ plans to extend Iran sanctions, which expire at the end of the year. Corker has a bill pending drafted with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that ties an ISA renewal to stepping up mandatory sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missile program, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and cyber threats and espionage efforts, as well as stopping Tehran from engaging in dollar-based financial transactions. Cardin has proposed a more straight-forward renewal of the ISA.
By tying Iran sanctions to Israeli aid, Graham threatens to throw the already contentious debate over Iran sanctions into another dicey arena.
Aid to Israel is a generally popular with lawmakers, and in past years, emergency appropriations have passed unanimously. But Democrats might feel compelled this year to protect President Obama’s fresh nuclear deal with Iran.
House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who is the Democratic co-chair of Congress’s Israel Allies Caucus, said Tuesday that he was “very satisfied” that the “unprecedented” level of aid in the MOUwould be enough to let Israel maintain its military edge in the region.
“Look, you can always want more money. I’d love the money to double, but the reality is this is a lot of money, and it’s a very strong statement by the president,” Engel said.
But Republicans argue that some provisions of the deal could be detrimental to U.S. interests. Several members pointed to a provision that phases out money Israel is allowed to spend on its own defense contractors. For years, Israel has been required to spend about three-quarters of its U.S. military aid on U.S. defense contractors — under the deal, eventually all the money would have to be spent on U.S. products.
But the two countries share defense technology that the U.S. military has benefited from on the battlefield, and Republicans worry that if less money is pumping into Israeli firms, the U.S. will also suffer.
“Whatever assistance America has provided to Israel has redounded in our favor,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), the Republican co-chair of the Israel Allies Caucus.
Still, some Republicans said it is particularly important that Obama struck the deal, whatever its flaws, because of Israel’s deep concerns with the nuclear deal with Iran.
“I think it was important to Israel that it be consummated under this administration because of the perceived disconnect, or separation that existed,” Corker said. “I think for the long-term continuity of our relationship with Israel, I’m glad that it was consummated now.”
Corker also applauded the deal for allowing the “follow on” of other pending arms sales to Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait.
“To act as if there’s no connection — which there always has been, let’s face it — is kind of like when the hostages left when the money arrived,” Corker said.
Corker was referring to the ongoing spat between the White House and congressional Republicans about whether a $400 billion cash payment sent to Iran on the same day as American prisoners were released constitutes “ransom.” Recent revelations the administration sent $1.3 billion in subsequent cash payments to Tehran have only fueled GOP ire. Some House Republicans want to censure Obama and prevent making any more cash payments to Iran.