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

Congressional Democrats, increasingly concerned about the way Israel is waging its war in Gaza, are weighing whether to use their leverage over arms sales to raise objections to the civilian death toll and increase pressure on President Biden to impose conditions on American support for the military offensive. .

As top Republicans on Congressional foreign affairs committees signed off on a State Department plan to sell $18 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to Israel, according to several people familiar with the consultation, l The agreement remains in limbo. That strongly suggests that the top two Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees have yet to approve.

Spokesmen for the two – Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland and Representative 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 recent years, and would include also 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, Democrat of Maryland, said Wednesday that he is seriously considering several legislative options to do so, including introducing a measure that would block gun transfers. It would be an extremely long shot; it would take a qualified majority in both houses of Congress to override Biden's veto, a nearly 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 large transactions that involve sending 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 threshold is $100 million for defense items or services and $300 million for design and construction services.

Fewer than 10% of all U.S. arms sales to foreign governments reach these levels, according to several people familiar with the consultation process, who were not authorized to comment on it publicly. This means that Congress only reviews the largest and most significant proposed deals.

Once the State Department decides to proceed with the transfer, a draft of the agreement is sent to senior members of the Senate and House Foreign Affairs Committees for an informal review that is arguably the most important step in authorizing any arms sales.

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

Lawmakers can also report foreign policy concerns to the government in question, including about human rights and how weapons will be used. The process can drag on if lawmakers aren't satisfied with the answers. And if concerns persist, a member can suspend the proposed transfer.

Sometimes suspensions are temporary, but other times they can last months or years and ultimately derail a deal. They can be a great source of frustration for an administration hoping to quickly complete an arms deal.

The administration can move forward without congressional consent during the informal review period, but will generally move forward only if there are no longer lingering concerns.

Once congressional issues are resolved, the State Department sends Congress a formal notification of the administration's intent to pursue the agreement.

The length of the review period varies by country; it is 15 days for sales in Israel. No deal can be concluded before the conclusion of the review period, but a formal notification usually means that a deal is on the fast track to approval.

However, during this period, any member of the House or Senate may introduce a resolution of disapproval to register objections to an agreement.

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

The strong bipartisan support for Israel in Congress makes it highly unlikely that things will get to this point; any resolution of disapproval would be almost certain to fail. But the trial could still lead to a public standoff between congressional Democrats and the White House that Biden would certainly like to avoid.

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

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

In that case, both houses 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 speed up aid packages to Ukraine and Israel. No resolution of disapproval was introduced to block their emergency use, but a number of Democrats expressed frustration when Biden bypassed Congress twice in December to transfer more than $250 million in weapons to Israel. They warned Biden's team against ignoring congressional notification for future arms transfers.

“Decisions of 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 has opposed previous emergency declarations, said Wednesday. “This means that Congress and the American people must have full visibility into the weapons we transfer to any other nation.”

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