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Palestinian aid emerges as sticking point in supplemental talks

New dustup comes as Senate negotiators close in on border, immigration pact

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to his office from the Senate floor during votes on the stopgap funding bill on Thursday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to his office from the Senate floor during votes on the stopgap funding bill on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A dispute over humanitarian aid for Gaza and the West Bank has become the latest snag in efforts to reach a bipartisan deal on a war funding and border security package.

Senate Democrats have long pushed for humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians as an integral part of a national security package and it was included in the Senate’s $110.5 billion bill that stalled last month.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that a deal must include “humanitarian aid for the Palestinians in Gaza and humanitarian aid to other places around the world.” But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pushed back against Gaza aid, saying the Palestinians had no reliable governing entity that could be trusted with it.

The State Department has designated Hamas, the militant group that governs the Gaza Strip and carried out the Oct. 7, 2023, attacks on Israel, as a terrorist organization, and the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, has been accused of corruption. 

In floor remarks Tuesday, McConnell called the Palestinian Authority, the leading candidate to take over control of Gaza if Hamas is toppled, “relentlessly and thoroughly corrupt.”

“Their officials may skim off the top to line their own pockets, rather than line terrorist tunnels with concrete like Hamas. But the result for average Palestinians is not dissimilar,” McConnell said.

The GOP leader took aim at Senate Foreign Relations Chair Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., for not supporting strings on Palestinian aid.

“I cannot understand why some of my Democratic colleagues, including the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee who pushed so hard to pass legislation combating global corruption, now wants to shovel billions of taxpayer dollars to one of the most corrupt entities on the entire planet,” McConnell said.

Cardin said Tuesday that humanitarian aid is “desperately needed, including in Gaza,” and he rejected McConnell’s argument that there was no responsible entity in Gaza to distribute the aid.

“I think we have shown, and Israelis have shown, that we can get humanitarian [aid] to the people that need it through networks that we have vetted very carefully,” Cardin said. “There are different entities at the border that we have worked with.”

During debate on the new stopgap spending law last week, Cardin led opposition to an amendment from Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would have cut off U.S. aid to “governing entities” in the Palestinian territories unless certain conditions, such as the renunciation of terrorism and release of hostages, are met.

Cardin at the time said the amendment would go farther than current law in cutting off access to medicines and other critical needs, and that it would undermine efforts to govern the region after a successful Israeli campaign to root out Hamas.

Paul’s amendment was defeated on a nearly party-line, 44-50 vote. Only retiring Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III, from deep-red West Virginia, voted with the Republicans.

A Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new line of attack suggests a lack of party discipline among Republicans who are struggling to find unity on the war funding and border package.

“They are trying to throw things at the wall to see what sticks,” the aide said. “This is the first time McConnell has ever indicated that humanitarian aid should be some red line or anything like that. It is fallacious.”

The initial $110.5 billion supplemental funding package that Senate Democrats released last month would provide $10 billion for humanitarian assistance. Nearly $5.7 billion would go through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s international disaster aid account, with $4.3 billion appropriated for the State Department’s migration and refugee assistance fund.

The money isn’t specifically earmarked for certain countries or regions, but an Appropriations Committee summary says the funding would “provide emergency food, shelter, and basic services to populations suffering the impacts of a confluence of complex and protracted crises, including in Ukraine, Gaza and the West Bank, East Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere.”

As a result of a 2018 law known as the Taylor Force Act, the U.S. does not directly fund the Palestinian Authority, though a small amount of security assistance training is provided through the State Department. Aid to civilians in the West Bank and Gaza is largely coordinated by the United Nations and international relief organizations.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the Senate’s top Republican appropriator, said she would be open to providing Gaza aid under certain conditions. “I think we have to have extremely strict guardrails in order to prevent diversions,” she said.

Border deal near?

Meanwhile, appropriators are wrestling with how to handle the border funding package that has been the chief holdup. The initial supplemental had $10.7 billion for border management, which GOP critics said was too tilted toward services for migrants rather than border enforcement.

A lead Democratic negotiator, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, said Tuesday that most of the border issues have been resolved but the bill isn’t yet ready.

“We are still working on text. And we can’t say we have an agreement until we have text. But there very few issues that the three of us still have not yet resolved,” said Murphy, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. Murphy said negotiators are at the stage where they’re “reading in appropriators and leadership to the things that we have agreed on.” 

“We can’t bring this to the floor until we have the full funding for what we’ve agreed to and the support of leadership,” Murphy said.

Collins said the Appropriations Committee is assessing the cost of the parts of the draft agreement that negotiators have sent over, though in some cases the language did not reflect what appropriators had thought was agreed upon.

“There are other examples where there are still policy disagreements or we’re getting bracketed language with, ‘to be determined.’”

Collins added that the bill’s border-related provisions are likely to cost more than the $13.6 billion the White House initially requested, which Senate appropriators later whittled down.

The chief obstacle in the immigration talks appears to be how to handle “humanitarian parole” for migrants entering the U.S., or those admitted for emergency humanitarian reasons or for some other “significant public benefit.” 

Senate Judiciary ranking member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., cautioned negotiators against agreeing to “Swiss cheese parole reform” in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. Graham called parole “the tool of choice for open borders” and open to abuses “by the Biden Administration and other liberals, undoing any other border security reforms made.”

‘Sharpen our pencils’

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said some on his side of the aisle had issues with nonmilitary assistance to Ukraine being part of the package.

Of the total $65.5 billion for Ukraine in the Senate bill, roughly $50 billion is for security-related assistance and to fund purchases of U.S. arms and equipment. The remainder would be set aside direct budgetary support to Kyiv, aid for Ukrainian refugees and other humanitarian assistance.

“I think a lot of our members are very much for military aid, for lethal aid, particularly given the fact that it’s restocking our arsenals here in this country, so we’ll see,” Thune said. “Given the challenges that we face fiscally in this country, I think we got to really sharpen our pencils and make sure that we’re doing what needs to be done to help them succeed.”

Thune, who said a border deal remains the key for GOP senators, told reporters that he doesn’t anticipate the Senate will be able pass the bill in the coming days.

“There are a few items still outstanding,” he said. “So we’re not on a glide path to get this done this week.”

Rachel Oswald, Briana Reilly and John M. Donnelly contributed to this report.