The Senate voted 49 to 51 on Wednesday not to advance a bill that would provide billions of dollars to Ukraine and Israel, aid the White House says is essential for safeguarding democracy across the globe.
Republicans made good on their threat to block consideration of the bill unless it included their preferred border security and immigration measures. They were joined by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats — and one of Congress' most prominent progressives.
Sanders voted no for a different reason, as he later explained in a statement: "I do not believe that we should give the right-wing extremist Netanyahu government an additional $10.1 billion dollars with no strings attached to continue their inhumane war against the Palestinian people."
In floor remarks and a letter to Democrats earlier this week, Sanders said he agreed with many of the bill's provisions, including its support for humanitarian aid and Ukraine's right to defend itself.
But he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's response to Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, noting that it has killed some 16,000 Palestinians and displaced another 1.8 million from their homes in Gaza. He also pointed to Israeli settler violence and a growing Palestinian death toll in the West Bank.
"[Israel has] the right to go to war against Hamas, who committed an atrocious invasion of their country," Sanders told NPR's Morning Edition before Wednesday's vote. "But they do not have the right to go to war against the Palestinian people."
Sanders told Morning Edition's Michel Martin that he believes the only way the U.S. can tell Netanyahu that "his military tactics are unacceptable" is to not give him a blank check for the $10 billion that President Biden's security package seeks.
He does support giving Israel $4 billion to replenish its Iron Dome, a decade-old network of radar detectors and missile launchers that intercepts incoming rockets.
But he said further U.S. aid to Israel should come with conditions, adding that "we cannot allow Israeli settlers to kill Palestinians on the West Bank" and "have got to also make it clear that the people of Gaza have a right to return and rebuild their homes."
"And maybe most importantly, we need a commitment from the Netanyahu government that there will be a two-state solution, that the Palestinians in the area have a right to their own homeland, to live with security and dignity," Sanders said.
Unlike some of his fellow progressives, Sanders has not called for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. He told NPR that would be unrealistic, given Hamas' stated goal of destroying Israel.
He says the changes needed in the region — now in its fifth war in 15 years — can only happen under new leadership in Gaza. While Israel aims to remove Hamas from power, it remains unclear who would step in to govern the territory.
"You need new Palestinian leadership which pays attention to the needs of the Palestinian people and understands that Israel has a right to exist in a two-state situation," Sanders said. "Not Hamas."
The clock is ticking to pass a package before Christmas break
The question of financial support for the militaries of Ukraine and Israel has both dominated and divided Capitol Hill in recent months.
In October, Biden asked Congress for nearly $106 billion in funding for Israel, Ukraine, countering China and border security.
The package included some $14 billion for Israel and more than $61 billion for Ukraine, which the Biden administration has repeatedly warned is running out of money to defend itself from Russia.
House Republicans are increasingly opposed to sending more aid to Ukraine, though they did approve a $14.5 billion military aid package for Israel (funded by cuts to the IRS) last month. The Democratic-controlled Senate said it would reject it, since it didn't include money for Ukraine, humanitarian aid in Gaza and other Biden administration priorities.
Some Democrats have also raised questions about aid to Israel. A majority of Senate Democrats — as well as Sanders and independent Maine Sen. Angus King — wrote Biden a letter last month asking him to defend his request for aid and ensure that Israel will use U.S. military assistance in keeping with international law.
After Wednesday's failed vote, Biden accused Republicans of "playing chicken" with the package by demanding "partisan" border policies, but also indicated he would be open to making compromises in order to get the bill passed.
A bipartisan negotiating group working border policy in the Senate has been unable to overcome disagreements around asylum policy and other border security issues. Republicans have warned that they will not agree to a broader security bill without resolving the border issue.
The president said Congress must approve funding for Ukraine before it goes on holiday recess late next week, or else it will be giving Russian president Vladimir Putin a gift.
Sanders agrees, adding that he expected that Congress would need to go back to the drawing board and hopes it can "do the best that we can ... as soon as we can."
"I do think that it's absolutely imperative, that we need a spending bill right now, which makes it clear to Putin that the United States and the rest of the democratic world are supportive of Ukraine and other democracies," Sanders said. "And I think humanitarian aid for Gaza and other parts of the world are desperately needed."
Sanders condemns bigotry at home, including in his own state
Sanders also weighed in on a recent incident in his home state, in which a man shot three college students of Palestinian descent as they walked down the street in Burlington, speaking Arabic and wearing keffiyehs.
All three survived, though one could face permanent paralysis in his legs due to a bullet lodged in his spine. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime.
Sanders said the attack took place a mile from where he lives, calling it "beyond belief and ... unspeakable." He described the victims as "really bright, lovely young men" and said he had spoken to one of them recently.
And he alluded to the broader context, in which reports of antisemitic, Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian incidents have skyrocketed in the wake of Oct. 7.
"That adds to all of the stress and ugliness that we're seeing taking place today," he said. "It is a tough time for our country, to say the least."
Sanders said in a democratic society, people have the right to disagree and participate in the political process. But they cannot, he said, translate their political views "into hatred of an entire people."
"This country has gone through hundreds of years of bigotry and hatred," he added. "We're trying to climb our way out of it. Let's not recede into tribalism and hatred just because of somebody's religion."
The broadcast interview was produced by Milton Guevara, Reena Advani and Julie Depenbrock.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A vote to give more aid to Ukraine and Israel was defeated yesterday in the Senate. It was blocked by Republican lawmakers who want border security to be part of the $111 billion bill. Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent but one who votes with Democrats, also opposed the package, but for different reasons. When I spoke with him yesterday, Sanders said he wanted to see the White House attach conditions to further U.S. military aid for Israel.
BERNIE SANDERS: I am very concerned about what's going on in Israel in terms of Netanyahu's extreme right-wing government - not going to war against Hamas. They have the right to go to war against Hamas, who committed an atrocious invasion of their country, but they do not have the right to go to war against the Palestinian people. And the truth is that what has been happening there in the last two months is totally unacceptable to me. We're talking about 16,000 Palestinians dead, 70% of whom are women and children. You're talking about 1.9 million people displaced from their homes. Half of the buildings, the housing units in Gaza have either been destroyed or damaged. Bottom line is, yes, Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas terrorism. But the type of military strategy they're using now is inhumane. It's in violation of international law. We should not give a blank check to Netanyahu to continue that policy.
MARTIN: What kind of conditions do you want to see?
SANDERS: For a start, we cannot allow Israeli settlers to kill Palestinians on the West Bank. Our goal must be a two-state solution, and you're not going to have that if Palestinians are terrorized on the West Bank. We have got to also make it clear that the people of Gaza have a right to return and rebuild their homes, not be driven off of their land. And maybe most importantly, we need a commitment from the Netanyahu government that there will be a two-state solution, that Palestinians in the area have a right to their own homeland, to live with security and dignity.
MARTIN: I mean, I assume you've been talking to the White House. Their approach has been privately stern, but publicly they are not willing to set any conditions on aid going forward. I assume you've been talking to them about it. What do you say to them, and what do they say to you?
SANDERS: Well, I think the president and Tony Blinken, our secretary of state, have been trying to do the right thing, and they have been trying to make it clear to Netanyahu that what they are doing is inhumane. But the sad reality is, despite what the president wants to see happen, it is not happening. And I think the only way you tell Netanyahu that his type of behavior, his military tactics are unacceptable is say we're not going to give you $10 million to continue that effort.
MARTIN: It's my understanding that you have been unwilling to call for a cease-fire. Some of your colleagues in the House have done so. Why not?
SANDERS: Because I think a cease-fire is unrealistic when you have an organization like Hamas, which has made it very clear, before October 7 and after October 7, that their goal is to destroy Israel and engage in perpetual warfare. So when you have an organization who says, yeah, we want to destroy Israel, we're going to do it any time and any place, I don't know how you have a cease-fire with them. At the end of the day, the change that is needed in the area will not happen with Hamas in power. You need new Palestinian leadership, which pays attention to the needs of the Palestinian people, understands that Israel has a right to exist in a two-state situation, not Hamas.
MARTIN: It's been very much in the news that incidents of antisemitism have been on the rise. Certainly, incidents of hostility and hate toward people of Muslim and Arab descent have been on the rise. The FBI director said that he's very concerned recently when he had remarks before the Congress. What do you think would make a difference right now?
SANDERS: Look, I think the bottom line here is that in a democratic society, people have a right to disagree on the war in Gaza or anything else. But we cannot translate our political views into hatred of an entire people, whether they are Muslims, whether they are Jews or whether they're anybody else. And you've got to sit down and argue your point of view, get involved in the political process. But this country has gone through hundreds of years of bigotry and hatred. We're trying to climb our way out of it. Let's not recede into tribalism and hatred just because of somebody's religion.
MARTIN: That's Senator Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders, thanks so much for talking to us today.
SANDERS: Thank you. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.