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Iron Dome flap a rare moment of uncertainty for congressional support of Israel

Israel’s Iron Dome system launches a missile to intercept a rocket coming from Gaza. Photo by Nehemia Gershuni-Aylho.
Israel’s Iron Dome system launches a missile to intercept a rocket coming from Gaza. Photo by Nehemia Gershuni-Aylho.

By Dmitriy Shapiro/ Jewish Week

Few issues in the U.S. Congress have as much bipartisan support as pro-Israel legislation. It is difficult to find a member of the Senate or House in either party who, at least publicly, is not claiming undying love and support for Israel and its military’s Operation Protective Edge.

But last week, there was a rare moment of uncertainty in regards to where emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system would come from, and whether the proposed funding could survive the partisanship and inaction Congress is known for.

In a dramatic about-face, the Senate and House on Aug. 1—the day both bodies were set to adjourn for August recess—authorized $225 million in emergency funding to replenish Israel’s dwindling stockpile of Tamir missiles for the Iron Dome. On Monday, President Barack Obama signed the funding bill into law.

The Iron Dome funds were initially tied up over their inclusion in the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2014 (S. 2648), which was blocked July 31 by Senate Republicans. That bill, introduced July 23 by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), became mired in a bitter, partisan fight given its inclusion of funds requested by Obama to handle the influx of juvenile asylum-seekers crossing the Mexican border into America. Less controversially, the original appropriations bill also included emergency funds for agencies involved in fighting wildfires in the western U.S.

After the eventual approval of the Iron Dome funding on Aug. 1, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) held a joint press conference in which they reiterated the Senate’s support for the state of Israel in light of Hamas’s violation of a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire that day.

“The message today from the United States Senate needs to be sent and it was sent,” said Graham. “Not only are we going to give you (Israel) more missiles, we’re gonna be a better friend. We’re going to fight for you in the international court of public opinion, we’re going to fight for you in the United Nations.”

“As we speak, hundreds if not more rockets will be raining down on the nation of Israel, and if it were not for Iron Dome, the situation would be devastation, chaos, and mass casualties in Israel,” said McCain. “Thanks [to] Iron Dome, which was a U.S.-Israeli project, the people of Israel are relatively safe. But they were running out of missiles, they were running out of capability, and there’s still thousands more rockets that can be fired from Gaza. … So from a practical standpoint, this was an urgent need. We could not go out [for recess] for a month and five weeks and not act to help replenish their supply of Iron Dome missiles.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had earlier called for separate legislation on Iron Dome funding, rather than having the funds included in the border bill, knowing that Senate Republicans would oppose any bill bowing to Obama’s refugee-related funding requests, but at the same time not wanting to appear to rebuff Israel.

The emergency funding was requested by U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in a letter to Congress and, according to Sen. Mikulski, Senate appropriations staffers were briefed by Israeli embassy staffers about the urgent need.

Already this year, Congress had provided $235 million for Iron Dome research, development, and production, according to the Congressional Research Service. Mikulski said each Iron Dome missile costs Israel about $50,000. During the latest Gaza conflict, Israel fired more than 500 such missiles at some of the approximately 2,700 Hamas rockets bound for the Jewish state, with a 90-percent interception rate.

Knowing that the GOP would never acquiesce to the president’s border funding requests, Senate Democrats decided to include Iron Dome funding in Mikulski’s bill, hoping that the unwillingness of any Republican senator to vote against pro-Israel legislation might provide the chance to carry the entire border bill through the Senate. And even if the bill would be rejected by the House, Republicans could be blamed for voting against pro-Israel legislation, Democrats reasoned.

Meanwhile, the House was wrapped up in its own, much smaller border funding bill. Unlike the Senate’s emergency appropriations bill, the House did not tie Iron Dome funding to any of the other bills it was debating. Pro-Israel members of the House were concerned that if the Senate did not pass a stand-alone Iron Dome funding bill, the request would need to be delayed until the the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

“The issue that’s happening [with Iron Dome funding] in the Senate is playing politics, you don’t play politics with people’s lives,” said Rep. Mark Meadow (R-N.C.).

House Democrats, meanwhile, entertained themselves while watching Republicans fail to gain enough votes to pass their border security plan.

“If the Israelis are saying they need emergency [funding] for the Iron Dome, presumably that means that they think they might run out of missiles,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told “Maybe someone in the American military is saying to the Republicans [that they] don’t think [Israel will] run out. How do you take that chance? We’re not going to be here [during recess]. Why not do it now? Why wait?… I don’t understand it.”

On July 31, as the House retreated into meetings for the day in order to regroup and possibly schedule more votes, attention shifted to the Senate, where Mikulski’s bill was opened for debate and a vote that evening.

Since the emergency funding bill authorized un-budgeted funds to be allocated, the Senate was first required to waive the spending caps required under the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. But a vote to waive the act and proceed to the emergency funding bill was defeated by Republicans.

What followed was a dramatic, nearly cinematic confrontation between the two sides—a scene reminiscent of a western-style gunfight, pitting Democrat Harry Reid, a visibly exhausted but determined majority leader from Nevada, against Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas.

Reid began amending Mikulski’s bill with different combinations, each time asking for unanimous consent, knowing Cornyn would object. The combinations came first in pairs—Iron Dome and wildfire funding—and then individually, saving Iron Dome for last.

Predictably, Cornyn objected on every combination, saying that the spending exceeded the caps required by the budget act which the Senate had just voted not to waive. Finally, Reid asked for unanimous consent, but just for the Iron Dome funding. This time, instead of Cornyn, the objection was raised by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who is considered the Senate’s most ideological budget hawk. Coburn’s move saved other Republicans from having to object to a pro-Israel bill.

“Mr. President, reserving the right to object, would the senator from Nevada, the majority leader, consider an amendment that would modify his request that would provide an offset for this bill?” asked Coburn.

This time, Reid declined and Coburn maintained his objection, ending that evening’s Iron Dome funding fight. But with the emergency funds’ passage one day later, the epic showdown would become nothing more than a footnote.

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