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Missiles and drones from Iran were intercepted over Israel on Saturday night. Tomer Neuberg/AP

Iran’s Attack on Israel Has U.S. Politicians Scrambling

The messy intraparty dynamics are already playing out.

As the world waits to see what will come next between Israel and Iran, politicians in America are scrambling to determine their own next steps.

The roiling Israel policy debate has remained near the center of U.S. politics for the first four months of 2024, and American politicians have for weeks seemed eager to change the subject to something else. But Iran’s attack on Israel Saturday night, retaliation for an Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic compound earlier in the month, shows once again how difficult that is to do.

Despite their lengthy to-do list, House Republicans had hoped to spend next week bashing President Joe Biden over home appliances. But they quickly changed course after Iran’s attack, which renewed calls across Congress to take up a much-delayed national security package as soon as possible.

Biden cut a weekend trip short to return to the White House, where he spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after weeks of increasingly strained relations and promised “ironclad” support for the country’s self-defense while trying to head off a broad regional war.

Former President Donald Trump, at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, as hundreds of drones and missiles reached Israel, said the U.S. has shown “great weakness,” and the attack wouldn’t have happened if he had been in office.

The exact steps of what will happen next, and how Congress will respond in particular, are hazy at best.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise announced Saturday night the House was scrapping previous plans and would focus on legislation “that supports our ally Israel and holds Iran and its terrorist proxies accountable.”

What any legislation will look like — and whether the majority of both chambers will finally get on board — remains an open question.

“The House Republicans and the Republican Party understand the necessity of standing with Israel,” House Speaker Mike Johnson said on Fox News on Sunday. “We are gonna try again this week. The details of that package are being put together right now. We’re looking at the options and all these supplemental issues.”

House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner said Sunday he believed Johnson would bring aid funding for Israel, Ukraine and Asia to the floor this week. “I think it will have overwhelming support, both the Ukraine, Israel and Asia packages,” he said on “Meet the Press.” “Not just because of what’s happened with Iran escalating the conflict in the Middle East, but because these are allies that need and deserve our support.”

The messy dynamics over aid were already playing out on Saturday as Iran attacked.

A package to send aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan has been stalled in the House for months after it passed in the Senate. Johnson attempted to pass a stand-alone bill to send aid to Israel in February, but it failed after Democrats voted against it for excluding humanitarian aid for Gaza and money for Ukraine.

“What’s important right now is that we stand with Israel,” Johnson said Sunday. “We should not be dictating to them what their policy is.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell subtly chided Johnson — without naming him — in his statement that Congress needed to move quickly. Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was more explicit in saying the “best way to help Israel” would be for the House to take up the Senate-passed bill without delay.

“The Commander-in-Chief and the Congress must discharge our fundamental duties without delay,” said McConnell. “The consequences of failure are clear, devastating, and avoidable.”

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby pressed on Sunday for the House to take up the Senate bill and didn’t specify what else Biden would consider signing. “We’ll have to see what makes the way to his desk,” he said on Fox on Sunday. “But again, the fastest way to support our friends is to move that Senate bill forward and get it on the House floor.”

He also made a point of describing Saturday’s defense as a military victory in itself, calling it an “incredible success” on CNN Sunday morning, “really proving Israeli’s military superiority and just as critically their diplomatic superiority.”

The vast majority of drones and missiles Iran sent into Israel were intercepted before hitting any targets, and there were limited reports of damage. Kirby said the U.S. itself had shot down “several dozen” drones and missiles in Israel’s defense. He said the Biden administration doesn’t believe this constitutes the start of a broad regional conflict.

“Whether and how the Israelis will respond, that’s going to be up to them. We understand that and respect that,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But the president’s been very clear: We don’t seek a war with Iran, we aren’t looking for escalation here, we will continue to help Israel defend itself.”

There’s already some itching in Congress for more. Republicans like Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn said she wanted to see Biden launch “aggressive retaliatory strikes on Iran.”

“This is an escalating conflict,” Turner said on Meet the Press. “The administration — because we were successful, because we invested in missile defense technology with Israel — the administration is acting like, ‘well, done, we defended Israel against these attacks, we’re not escalating.’ This is escalating.” He said he didn’t believe the U.S. should engage directly with Iran now, but that the administration should make clear there would be consequences for any further attacks.

“I expect that they will respond,” Sen. Marco Rubio said on CNN Sunday about what he expected next from Israel. “I don’t think they’re going to ask us, nor do they need us to help in that regard. Ours has largely been a defensive posture.”

Progressives and other Democrats have also been split on how to approach any aid to Israel, given the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“There should never be any kind of conditions on all that when a nation could launch hundreds of drones towards Israel, I’m not going to be talking about conditions, ever,” Sen. John Fetterman, one of the most vocal supporters of Israel among Senate Democrats, said on CNN Sunday. He also didn’t rule out supporting offensive strikes on Iran.

“I just think we should follow and have Israel’s back in this situation,” he said, adding that while he disagrees with Biden on Israel policy, “he’s a fantastic president.”

Things in the House are also complicated: Democrats have called on Johnson to just pass the Senate bill, but doing so would mean more aid going to Ukraine and help from Democrats to get it over the line. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has indicated that doing so would prompt her to act on the motion to vacate, which she filed weeks ago, threatening to oust Johnson.

Johnson was noncommittal in his statement on Saturday about the next steps, only saying that he would “continue to engage with the White House to insist upon a proper response.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS. Kate Nocera contributed reporting.