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Dems slam Biden for bypassing Congress on Israel weapons transfers

When Congress went home for the holidays, it left Israel — its strongest ally in the Middle East — in the midst of a war without any additional aid from the United States.

But the Biden administration has been looking to maintain the flow of weapons to Israel in part by invoking an emergency authority that waives Congress’ ability to approve or reject the sale or transfer of weapons to a foreign nation. The administration did this twice in December, including on Friday.

And now, top Democratic senators who were already criticizing Israel’s military operations in Gaza are slamming the Biden administration for sending new arms to Israel in a way that bypasses the normal congressional review process.

The dynamic to watch this month is whether this will lead Congress to try to split Israel funding from the Ukraine-centric foreign aid package. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has resisted this in the past.

But the pushback inside the Senate Democratic Caucus is something to keep an eye on. They clearly want to force a public debate on this issue — a debate that’s effectively shut down by the administration’s invocation of emergency authorities.

“Unnecessarily bypassing Congress means keeping the American people in the dark,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has sought for years to restore Congress’ role in executive war powers. “We need a public explanation of the rationale behind this decision — the second such decision this month.”

Similarly, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Va.) said the administration’s decision “undermines transparency and weakens accountability,” adding: “The public deserves answers.”

Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said in a statement Sunday night that the specific munitions being sent to Israel have “been used to devastating effect in Gaza, contributing to the death and injury of countless civilians and the displacement of an estimated 2 million people.”

“The war in Gaza has generated immense controversy and concern in the United States and around the world,” Welch added. “The president should follow the established procedure of submitting his arms sales recommendations to Congress for prior approval.”

The Trump administration often used this same provision to circumvent Congress’ role in approving arms sales, prompting similar condemnations from Democrats.

These senators have long spoken out against efforts to shelve Congress’ authority on matters of war and peace. They’ve also been part of a group of Democrats that has criticized Israel’s military operations in Gaza following Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Oct. 7.

The Democratic senators argue that the Israeli military hasn’t done enough to limit civilian casualties and prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. And the larger group, which includes Kaine, Van Hollen and Welch, recently introduced an amendment to President Joe Biden’s supplemental foreign-aid request that would condition future aid to Israel — as well as other nations — on that country’s adherence to U.S. law and international laws of armed conflict.

There’s another important dimension here. The Defense Department said in a statement announcing the sale that Secretary of State Antony Blinken “has determined and provided detailed justification to Congress that an emergency exists that requires the immediate sale” of the weapons to Israel.

The weapons include “M107 155mm projectiles and related equipment for an estimated cost of $147.5 million,” per the Pentagon.

This comes as Israel faces a growing threat from Lebanon and Syria, where there are fears that Iran-backed Hezbollah militants could soon join in the conflict. The latest U.S. weapons sale could be an effort to shore up Israel’s defenses in the event of an attack from Hezbollah, whose forces are much more sophisticated than those of Hamas.

— Andrew Desiderio

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