After many objections, the US Senate approved a measure to fund $225 million for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. (DAVID BUIMOVITCH/ / AFP)
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WASHINGTON — US Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid asked his colleagues to approve Israeli missile defense and domestic wildfire-fighting funding. Republicans objected. Reid then sought approval for only the Iron Dome funds. Republicans objected. He tried a third time. And, again, Republicans objected.
The chamber on Friday morning adopted, via unanimous consent, a measure that would approve $225 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. The bill now goes to the House, where GOP leaders have been only lukewarm about the Tel Aviv-requested monies.
The Senate approval was an abrupt about-face from Thursday evening, when GOP fiscal hawks mounted an unrelenting effort to block the funding.
The first evidence of Republicans’ staunch disinterest in using emergency funds to help Israel came on Tuesday, when CongressWatch first reported that House GOP leaders would not follow the Senate’s lead by including the $225 million for Iron Dome in its version of an emergency supplemental to deal with the US-Mexico border crisis.
The next came later on Tuesday and throughout the week in the halls near the Senate chamber, where Republican senators hinted and postured — but never quite said it overtly — that they were skeptical of using so-called “off-book” funds to help Israel.
“I always come at things by asking if they’re paid for,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told CongressWatch a few hours before the Senate’s supplemental hit the floor.
A few minutes earlier, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters he would prefer if the Iron Dome funds “were paid for.”
Some GOP senators noted there are hundreds of millions of dollars included in Pentagon policy and budget bills that are working their way through the congressional process. Flacks pushed back on articles suggesting their bosses were opposed to using an emergency supplemental to send missiles to Israel, something GOP voters overwhelmingly support.
But it all burst into public as a remarkable and dramatic scene played out Thursday evening on the Senate floor, with conservative Republicans repeatedly refusing to allow passage of $225 million for America’s closest ally unless Democrats cut something else to free up those dollars.
It was the second time this week that congressional Republicans flirted with placing ideology over standing with Israel, which Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., repeatedly dubbed a “treasured ally” in arguing for a $3.5 billion emergency spending bill that included funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
The second instance actually played out in several dramatic steps, when Republicans — backed once by some Democrats — blocked the Iron Dome funding Thursday evening on the Senate floor.
Step One: Fifty senators, mostly Republicans joined by three Democrats from somewhat conservative states, voted down a motion to waive any budget restrictions that could have applied to the Senate’s $3.5 billion supplemental. (Three Democrats also did not vote.)
Reid described the 50-44 vote, which essentially killed the three-part supplemental, as “regretful.” He blamed Republicans for blocking “the Senate from addressing urgent
Step Two: Reid then immediately went into his majority leader bag of tricks, asking the Senate to approve the wildfire and Iron Dome funding via unanimous consent.
But Cornyn objected. The Senate’s rules always have been tilted toward protecting the minority, something that was on full display Thursday evening.
Cornyn even acknowledged the threat of the wildfires in the western United States and Israel’s need for funds to begin replenishing its Iron Dome interceptor missiles: “If that is not an emergency, I do not know what is.”
But ideology — in this case, the tea party-inspired GOP fight to slash the federal deficit or at least not raise it via new spending — trumped a dual emergency.
“This unanimous consent request to fund Iron Dome and wildfires exceeds the budget caps and the  Budget Control Act,” Cornyn said. “It is subject to a budget point of offer. Therefore, I object.”
Step Three: After another unanimous consent request just for the wildfire funding was immediately shot down by Republicans, Reid sought one only for Iron Dome funding. This time, he brought in a very infrequent ally: the chamber’s top Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Reid sought unanimous consent for an amendment co-sponsored by himself, Mikulski and McConnell that broke out the $225 million for Israel as its own measure.
This time, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., rose to object.
It was the Reid-Mikulski-McConnell measure that was approved on Friday morning. Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, replied to CongressWatch’s inquiry via Twitter about whether Coburn’s request for other cuts was met this way: “No offsets.”
Step Four: This time, Reid did the objecting.
Coburn asked Reid to allow a budget “offset” before he would allow the stand-alone Iron Dome measure to be adopted. That means he wanted Democrats to first cut something else from within the federal budget.
“This is an emergency. Our No. 1 ally, at least in my mind, is under attack,” an incredulous Reid shot back, arguing emergency funding does not require an offset. “If this is not an emergency, I do not know anything that is. So I refuse to modify my request.”
Coburn stood firm, insisting that to offset the proposed Iron Dome funding, “we can take a small portion from everywhere — I do not care.
“But the fact is, we do not get any accountability of the money this country sends to the [United Nations] today. Go see if you can find it. You cannot. You will not be able to find it,” Coburn said. “I want to fund Israel. I want to supply them. I also want to make sure our children have a future. It is not hard to find $225 million out of $4 trillion. I yield the floor.”
And, with that, the Senate failed to approve funding for America’s closest ally as it fights a war. More remarkably, conservative Republicans put domestic policy ideology before standing with Israel, something that once was a central tenant of the national GOP platform.
With both chambers expected to leave town for a five-week recess, it was not immediately clear if the House could move quickly enough Friday to adopt the Senate-approved Iron Dome funding. If the lower chamber does so, it would be a stunning, 180-degree change in less than 24 hours.
With both chambers expected to leave town on Friday for a five-week recess, their collective inaction means Israel will continue firing its interceptor missiles to swat down Hamas rockets fired from Gaza. But, according to Israeli and US defense officials, it lacks the funds to begin replenishing them. ■