Anti-war protest hits US Congress hearing as Biden officials seek aid for Israel
PHOTO CAPTION: Anti-war protesters raise their "bloody" hands behind U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on President Biden's $106 billion national security supplemental funding request to support Israel and Ukraine, as well as bolster border security, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 31, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
By Patricia Zengerle, Phil Stewart and Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Two of President Joe Biden's top advisers asked U.S. lawmakers to provide billions more dollars to Israel on Tuesday at a congressional hearing interrupted repeatedly by protesters denouncing American officials for backing what they called "genocide" against Palestinians in Gaza.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Biden's request for $106 billion to fund ambitious plans for Ukraine, Israel and U.S. border security.
Arguing that supporting U.S. partners is vital to national security, Biden requested $61.4 billion for Ukraine, about half of which would be spent in the United States to replenish weapons stocks drained by previous support for Kyiv.
Biden also asked for $14.3 billion for Israel, $9 billion for humanitarian relief -- including for Israel and Gaza -- $13.6 billion for U.S. border security, $4 billion in military assistance and government financing to counter China's regional efforts in Asia.
As the hearing began, a line of anti-war protesters raised red-stained hands in the air. Capitol police later removed them from the room after shouted slogans including, "Ceasefire now!" "Protect the children of Gaza!" and "Stop funding genocide."
Blinken did not respond to the protesters, but when he was asked later about the possibility of a ceasefire, he said that would "simply consolidate what Hamas has been able to do and ... potentially repeat what it did another day." A pause, however, for humanitarian reasons can be considered, he said.
"We do believe that we have to consider things like humanitarian pauses to make sure that assistance can get to those who needed and people can be protected and get out of harm's way," Blinken said.
Blinken said Gaza in the future could not be governed by Hamas, but could also not be run by Israel, adding that ideally an "effective and revitalized Palestinian Authority" could ultimately run the strip, while other countries in the region could step in to help under temporary arrangements.
U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria have been attacked at least 20 times since Oct. 17 by Iran-backed groups, triggering U.S. air strikes last week against two unoccupied arms storage facilities in Syria. But those attacks, which were meant to deter further attacks, have failed to do so, with near daily attempts to strike American forces in both countries.
Austin said that if such attacks do not cease, "We will respond."
On Ukraine, Austin said, "I can guarantee that without our support (Russian President Vladimir) Putin will be successful."
Blinken said U.S. support for Ukraine has made Russia's invasion of Ukraine "a strategic debacle."
REPUBLICANS DIVIDED, FUNDING PATH UNSURE
Congress has already approved $113 billion for Ukraine since Russia invaded in February 2022. The White House has said it has less than $5.5 billion in funds to continue transferring weapons from U.S. stockpiles to Ukrainian forces fighting Russia.
The path forward for Biden's latest funding plan looks uncertain. Democrats solidly back Biden's strategy of combining Ukraine aid with support for Israel, as do many Republicans in both the Senate and House of Representatives.
"We need to address all of these priorities as part of one package - because the reality is these issues are all connected, and they are all urgent," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairperson Patty Murray said.
Senator Susan Collins, the committee's top Republican, said she would judge the funding request on whether it makes the United States more secure.
But Republicans who lead the House of Representatives object to combining the two issues, joined by some party members in the Senate. Opinion polls show public support for Ukraine aid declining and many Republicans, particularly those most closely aligned with former President Donald Trump, have come out against it.
With federal spending fueled by $31.4 trillion in debt, they question whether Washington should be funding Ukraine's war with Russia, rather than backing Israel or boosting efforts to push back against a rising China.
Newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson has voted in the past against assistance for Kyiv. On Monday, he introduced a bill to provide $14.3 billion in aid to Israel by cutting funding for the Internal Revenue Service, setting up a showdown with Democrats.
The House bill does not provide humanitarian aid for Gaza.
Biden's support for Israel, which already receives $3.8 billion in annual U.S. military assistance, has drawn criticism amid international appeals for Gaza civilians to be protected.
Israel this week launched a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip as it strikes back at Islamist Hamas militants who killed 1,400 people and took at least 240 hostages in a rampage on Oct. 7.
Palestinian authorities say Israel's "total siege" of Gaza since that rampage has killed more than 8,300 people, thousands of them children, and left a dire need for fuel, food and clean water.
Blinken said about 400 U.S. citizens and family members - about 1000 people - are stuck in Gaza and would like to get out. He said the department was working on the issue but had not yet found a way to help them leave.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Phil Stewart, Simon Lewis, Idrees Ali and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Alistair Bell)