The controversial Iron Dome vote masks the GOP’s debt ceiling strategy

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, September 21, 2021.
Greg Nash

There has been intense hand-wringing about how a handful of Democratic members of Congress last week caused a delay on a vote to suspend the debt ceiling and fund the government because the original bill included funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system for Israel. 

Republican leaders declared the entire Democratic Party under “the anti-Semitic influence of their radical members.”  Brett Stephens lamented in the New York Times a “weight of shame” befell Democrats this week. Even moderate activists bemoaned an apparent shift in the party, the shoe finally dropping on long-standing Democratic support for Israel.  

But what the vote actually revealed wasn’t some novel shift within the Democratic Party, but rather, a new willingness by congressional Republicans to obstruct legislation in a narrowly divided Congress, even at Israel’s expense.

Iron Dome has enjoyed long standing bipartisan support because it is the most direct way to save innocent lives from terror. With extraordinary precision, Iron Dome obliterates rockets fired indiscriminately from Gaza. Even Democratic members frustrated about Israel’s intransigence towards the Palestinians in the past have voted overwhelmingly for Iron Dome funding. Members could declare, ‘I disagree with Israeli policy, but I strongly support Israel’s right to defend itself from murderous attacks.’  

The 420-9 stand-alone vote that occurred last Thursday affirmed this dynamic and was on par with other votes for Israel’s defense that I saw in my decade and a half on Capitol Hill.  

The fact that a few members protested inclusion of Iron Dome in the government funding and debt ceiling legislation should not have been enough — on its own — to tank the bill. In 2014, only eight members — four Democrats and four Republicans — opposed an emergency supplemental bill for Israel’s defense.  That bill still passed overwhelmingly, despite the marginal opposition.  Likewise, nine members (8 Democrats and 1 Republican), opposed last week’s vote, but the measure still passed with more than 400 votes.  

So why did the government funding and debt ceiling legislation face headwinds, whereas other recent Israel funding bills sailed through the House? If the Democratic Party was so decisively under the sway of a few members, as alleged by GOP leadership, why did the Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), announce that same day that he would put an Iron Dome funding bill on the floor the same week, and why did almost all Democrats support it?   

In truth, last Tuesday’s events have little to do with a narrow group of members commanding more influence, but rather the extraordinarily thin margins of any legislation moving through the House these days. On Sept. 21, a mere four votes could have tanked the bill, not just because of four Democrats, but because the entire GOP conference was willing to vote against the measure. 

The GOP likely “sees opportunity” in taking down debt ceiling legislation and opposing government funding. It held to that strategy, even though it risked a catastrophic government shutdown and default on U.S. debt, and even though it meant blocking life-saving legislation for Israel. Regardless of one’s views regarding the merits of such a strategy, the steps required by Democrats to ensure the bill’s passage had little to do with Israel and far more to do with mitigating the impact of the GOP’s maneuvering, which Democrats lambast as a refusal to work cooperatively to keep the government open and ensure America can continue paying its bills.  

One party could previously dare the other to oppose a bill with Israel funding. As Republicans demonstrated last Tuesday, that is no longer the case; last week’s vote indicates that the notion of Israel funding serving as a defense against opposition to legislation no longer works.    

The proverbial Israel shoe might drop at some point, and Democrats need to wrestle with ever-changing dynamics within the party, but last week’s vote was not that moment. Quite the contrary, it revealed a GOP prepared to prioritize its long-term strategy on reconciliation over immediate passage of Iron Dome funding.  

Fortunately, the episode led to an extraordinary statement of support for Israel and provided a realistic indication of where Congress stands on this issue, a development which should be celebrated by supporters in both parties.  

Daniel Silverberg co-leads the national security practice of Capstone LLC.  He was previously the national security advisor to the House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer from 2014-2021.

Tags Democratic Party Iron Dome political parties Politics of the United States Republican Party Steny Hoyer Steny Hoyer

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