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Nick LaLota
Rep. Nick LaLota stopped a GOP amendment dead in its tracks Wednesday night. Patrick Semansky/AP

Defense Bill Debate Unravels Over Palestinian Refugee Amendment

A Republican on the House Armed Services Committee offered an amendment to the annual Pentagon policy bill that would have prohibited the Defense Department from transporting any Palestinian refugees. A single Republican stopped the proposal dead in its tracks.

As the debate over the annual National Defense Authorization Act lumbered to the finish line Wednesday night, some less-than-precise words about Palestinian refugees started a partisan argument in the House Armed Services Committee room that ended with Democrats unexpectedly winning a vote.

Specifically, Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas offered an amendment to the defense policy bill Wednesday that would have prohibited the Pentagon from transporting any Palestinian refugees now or in the future.

Unfortunately for Jackson, his amendment wasn’t adopted, and there are two big reasons he lost. The first reason was a fellow Republican: Rep. Nick LaLota of New York.

LaLota cast the sole GOP vote against Jackson’s proposal, splitting the panel at 29-29 and preventing the amendment’s inclusion in the bill. (The 28 Democrats on the Armed Services panel all opposed the proposal as well.)

When NOTUS asked LaLota why he broke with the rest of his party on the proposal, the congressman said it was an easy choice.

“I’m super pro-Israel. I’m super anti-Hamas. But that doesn’t mean I’m anti-Palestinian refugee,” LaLota told NOTUS. “If they’re being suppressed by Hamas, and I suspect that many are, they are not my enemy.”

While LaLota was the biggest reason the amendment failed, there was also another reason: a former fellow Republican lawmaker.

Just weeks ago, Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin resigned from Congress, leaving the Armed Services Committee one Republican down. Rather than replace Gallagher, Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers of Alabama elected to leave the panel at 30 Republicans and 28 Democrats, meaning any single Republican had the power to sink a GOP amendment if all Democrats joined that Republican in opposition to a party-line proposal.

That’s exactly what happened with Jackson’s Palestinian refugee amendment.

The debate over the proposal revealed a clear division along party lines. Rep. Pat Fallon of Texas spoke in support of his fellow Texan’s amendment, telling committee members that “if you come to this country, you want people to blend in, and you want people to appreciate it.”

Fallon said it was difficult to separate out any Palestinian refugee who might be supportive of Hamas.

Democrats were almost immediately offended, with Rep. Sara Jacobs of California quickly calling out Fallon. “The fact that you all would say that all Palestinian civilians are responsible for this conflict, to me, is the most offensive thing I’ve heard today — and that’s a pretty high bar,” Jacobs said.

The debate just got more heated from there, as members stopped arguing about the proposal and started arguing about the Israel-Gaza conflict writ large. Some Republicans on the panel claimed that bringing any Palestinian refugees to the United States would pose a serious risk.

Jackson said many Palestinians were raised “from the time they’re in preschool” to hate America and see Americans as their enemy. He said a major motivation for his amendment was that there wasn’t a process to vet refugees. “Not all Palestinians are Hamas, and I did not say that. But all Hamas are Palestinians,” Jackson said.

The claim that “all Hamas are Palestinians” once again drew immediate criticism from Democrats.

Despite the spirited debate, Jackson told NOTUS late Wednesday night that he was “blindsided” by the failed vote.

But one person who also took issue with LaLota’s vote was expelled Rep. George Santos. Santos, who’s become a sworn enemy of LaLota, tweeted that his former fellow New York Republican wanted the Defense Department to pay for the transport of Palestinians to the United States.

“This is no longer funny,” Santos tweeted. “These RINOs are exposing us to danger!”

John T. Seward is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.