US House passes spending bill that averts government shutdown and slashes UNRWA funding

Bill includes billions for Israel and faced significant opposition from Republicans over southern border policy

US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson walks towards the House floor ahead of a vote on the funding package. EPA
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The US Congress on Friday took a major step towards avoiding a government shutdown and risked the collapse of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in the process.

As a shutdown loomed, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives narrowly passed a $1.2 trillion spending package in another last-minute save.

The Senate has until midnight to pass it, and President Joe Biden has said he would sign it into law immediately.

The bill includes almost $4 billion in funding for Israel's defence and solidifies Washington's pause on funding to UNRWA until at least the end of the year.

Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz thanked the US for the bill, describing it on platform X as a "clear testament to the strength of our alliance".

"As we mark 200 days to the barbaric October 7th terror attack by Hamas, Israel and the United States stand together in the fight against terrorism, defending democracy and our shared values."

UNRWA says that a cut in US aid would create “a huge gap” in the agency's funding, as humanitarian needs in Gaza reach disastrous levels amid an Israeli siege that has killed about 32,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, and led to mass hunger.

“This will undermine the effort to assist starving Gazans and potentially further weaken regional stability,” the agency said in a statement on Wednesday.

Mr Biden halted US funding for the agency after Israel claimed that some of its staff members had been involved in the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel that led to the war in Gaza.

The UN has launched an internal as well as an independent investigation into the claims.

UNRWA was established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly. Its mandate is to provide assistance and protection for about 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, including in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Pro-ceasefire progressives in Congress have condemned the bill's UNRWA provision, with Palestinian-American Representative Rashida Tlaib warning on the House floor that “members here, all of them, are now going to be contributing to the starvation of Palestinian families”.

The package also left out funding for Ukraine, which Mr Biden and his Democratic Party have been aggressively lobbying for.

Democratic Representative Steny Hoyer urged House Speaker Mike Johnson to bring Ukraine funding legislation to the floor for a vote after the body returns from recess, which starts next week.

“Today we took the responsible step of funding the people's government. Unfortunately, we did not however fund our allies in Ukraine,” he told the House after the vote.

“I urge all of us, as soon as we return, to defend freedom through our Ukrainian warriors.”

Republican infighting

The bill, which passed under suspended rules in a 286-134 vote, faced significant hurdles from far-right Republicans, including the Donald Trump-aligned Freedom Caucus.

Republicans in the House of Representatives, who blame the Biden administration for a mass migration crisis, have repeatedly blocked supplemental funding and larger Israel aid bills over claims they do not do enough to halt migration at the southern border with Mexico.

“Why are we in a rush to keep this government open?” Freedom Caucus member Representative Bob Good told reporters ahead of the vote.

Republican Representative Scott Perry added that if members of his party voted in favour of the funding bill, “they're saying to their constituents … what you saw at the border, that's fine with me”.

House Foreign Affairs Committee member Tim Burchett used apocalyptic language in voicing his opposition to the package, saying: “You are seeing the beginning of the end for the United States of America … We've got to make a stand. We got to take our country back.”

Why is the US struggling to pass Israel funding during the war in Gaza?

Why is the US struggling to pass Israel funding during the war in Gaza?

Right-wing Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed in a speech on the House floor that the bill is a “Democrat-controlled” funding measure.

After the vote, she immediately filed a motion to remove Mr Johnson, a member of her own party, from his position as Speaker. That vote could happen when Congress returns from recess.

If successful, it would mark the second time that the Republican-controlled Congress has ousted its own speaker.

Republicans ousted Kevin McCarthy late last year, a first in American history, in all-too-similar circumstances.

Freedom Caucus member Matt Gaetz introduced the motion to force a vote on Mr McCarthy's removal in protest against the passage of a last-minute spending bill that averted a government shutdown in October.

Updated: April 24, 2024, 7:53 AM