Here’s how Congress can use arms sales leverage to push Biden on Israel

Democrats in Congress, increasingly concerned about Israel’s handling of the war in Gaza, are weighing whether to use their leverage over arms sales to register objections to the civilian death toll and increase pressure on President Biden to set conditions on US support for the military offensive.

While top Republicans on the congressional foreign affairs committees signed off on the State Department’s plan to sell $18 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to Israel, the deal remains in limbo, according to several people familiar with the consultations. That strongly suggests the top two Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees have yet to sign on.

Spokesmen for the two — Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks of New York — declined to comment on the status of the deal, which would be one of the largest US arms sales to Israel in years and would include ammunition, training and other support. . But other Democrats have said in recent days that Congress should use its influence on arms transfers to demand that Israel do a better job of protecting civilian casualties in the conflict and allowing aid to reach civilians in Gaza.

An aide to Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, said Wednesday that he is strongly considering several legislative options to do so, including introducing a measure that would block gun transfers. That would be an extremely long shot; it would take a supermajority in both houses of Congress to overcome Mr. Biden’s veto, an almost impossible threshold given the strong bipartisan support for Israel on Capitol Hill.

But lawmakers can use their oversight role to try to weigh in on the issue. Here’s how it works.

Under the Arms and Export Control Act, the president must consult with Congress on major transactions involving the shipment of weapons of war to other countries.

If an order for military equipment reaches a certain monetary threshold – $25 million for close US allies, including Israel – the president must formally notify Congress. The limit is $100 million for defense items or services and $300 million for design and construction services.

Less than 10 percent of all U.S. arms sales to foreign governments reach those levels, according to multiple people familiar with the consultation process, who were not authorized to comment publicly. This means that Congress considers only the largest and most significant proposed deals.

Once the State Department decides to move forward with the transfer, the draft agreement is sent to the top foreign affairs members of the Senate and House of Representatives for informal consideration, arguably the most important step in clearing any arms sales.

The chairman and senior member of both councils and their senior aides can raise any concerns or objections in private briefings with State Department officials, including technical questions about the capabilities of the weapons being delivered, the logistics of how they will be stored and who the end users will be.

Lawmakers can also report foreign policy concerns to the government in question, including human rights and how weapons will be deployed. The process can be prolonged if the MPs are not satisfied with the answers. And if the concern persists, the member can stop the proposed transfer.

Sometimes the holds are temporary, but sometimes they can last for months or years and ultimately sink the contract. They could be a major source of frustration for an administration hoping to push through an arms deal quickly.

The administration can move forward without congressional approval during an informal review period, but it will usually move forward only if there are no longer lingering concerns.

Once any congressional issues are resolved, the State Department sends Congress formal notice of the administration’s intent to proceed with the deal.

The length of the review period varies from country to country; it is 15 days to sell to Israel. No deal can close before the review period ends, but formal notification usually means the deal is on the fast track for approval.

However, during this period, any member of the House or Senate can file a resolution of disapproval to file an objection to the deal.

To stop the arms transfer at this stage, a resolution of disapproval would have to pass both the House and Senate, and then overcome a specific veto by the president who supports the deal. That would require a two-thirds majority in both houses, which has never happened.

Strong bipartisan support for Israel in Congress makes it unlikely that things will get to this point; any resolution of disapproval would surely fail. But the process could still lead to a public confrontation between Democrats in Congress and the White House that Mr. Biden would surely want to avoid.

The president has the authority to bypass the review period if he declares that expediting the emergency sale is “in the national security interest of the United States.” The administration is still required to notify Congress and provide details for invoking emergency powers.

In 2019, the Trump administration used the state of emergency to bypass the congressional notification process and push through a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The move angered both Democrats and Republicans, who have been critical of the Saudi-led coalition attacking civilian targets in Yemen and angered by human rights abuses, including the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In that case, both chambers voted to block the deal, but failed to override then-President Donald J. Trump’s veto.

Under the Biden administration, similar emergency powers were used to expedite aid packages to Ukraine and Israel. No veto was introduced to block emergency use, but a number of Democrats expressed their frustration when Biden twice bypassed Congress in December and transferred more than $250 million in weapons to Israel. They warned Mr. Biden’s team not to bypass Congressional notices on future arms transfers.

“Decisions about war, peace and diplomacy should be made through a process that is deliberate, transparent and consistent with our values,” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, one of the Democrats who opposed earlier emergency declarations, said Wednesday. “That means Congress and the American people must have full visibility over the weapons we transfer to any other nation.”

Leave a Comment