Jewish Democrats are raging at Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) over legislation providing aid to Israel, accusing the newly installed leader of choosing a partisan tack that will only delay emergency assistance to America’s closest Middle Eastern ally.
All but 12 House Democrats voted against Johnson’s $14.3 billion aid proposal Thursday night, with most citing the Speaker’s decision to include cuts in equal amounts to IRS funding.
The legislation is also opposed by leaders of both parties in the Senate, who want a broader package including aid to Ukraine, leaving the fate of the Israel funds in question amid escalating hostilities in Gaza almost a month after Hamas’s terrorist attacks killed more than 1,400 people.
Heading into the weekend, Johnson’s Democratic critics remained furious with the decision to combine the aid to Israel — an issue that has historically enjoyed wide bipartisan support — with a highly partisan cut to one of President Biden’s pet programs. They minced no words in lashing out at the newly minted Speaker, with some even accusing Johnson of abandoning the biblical teachings he claims as a guide.
“To play politics with Israel in their greatest time of need, our No. 1 ally, the largest attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust, that’s who Mike Johnson decided he wanted to be,” Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.), who is Jewish, said immediately after Thursday’s vote.
“It’s just disappointing for a guy who says, you know, he lives by the Bible but he wants to cause problems in the Holy Land.”
Johnson took the reins of the House last week after almost a month of GOP infighting that followed the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). And he’s made clear his top priority will be to unite his restive GOP conference for the sake of expanding the Republicans’ majority in 2024 — a goal he met with the Israel bill, which found only two Republican detractors.
Johnson is unique among modern-day Speakers for his ardent embrace of Evangelical conservatism, which he says acts to steer his daily life. During an interview last week, Johnson, hours into his Speakership, said individuals who want to understand his stance on various issues should “go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it,” adding “that’s my worldview; that’s what I believe.”
Jewish Democrats are now bringing up that faith as they question why he pushed the Israel aid bill cuts — which, many pointed out, broke from the precedent of approving emergency aid without conditions.
“I am a person of faith; I have believed in God since I was a child, it was always there, it is in my DNA,” Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio), who is Jewish, said Friday. “I have a master’s in theology; I have studied Torah; I have studied the Bible; I have studied the Quran page by page by page.”
“I can assure you, and this new Speaker, that pitting the security of the people against protecting billionaires from paying all their taxes is not in the Bible,” he continued. “And if at any point in time he would like to talk about what’s actually in the Bible, I’m happy to walk him through it.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a prominent Jewish Democrat, said she would expect a person of faith to “make decisions through a value-driven process that is based on the principles that most religions promote.”
Johnson, in her eyes, did not follow that strategy.
“The cynicism and politicization that he has demonstrated so far shows me that he’s certainly not working from a place of faith and commitment to working together and trying to achieve a greater good which, you know, normally somebody who claims to be a person of faith would be doing,” said Wasserman Schultz, who — like Moskowitz and Landsman — voted in favor of the GOP bill to demonstrate their support for Israel.
The highly personal nature of the attacks on the new Speaker reflects the emotional connection many Jewish lawmakers have to Israel — and the importance those members are placing on passing the aid package. Aside from the IRS cuts, Democrats are also bashing the GOP bill for excluding humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians and funding for Ukraine.
“I’m Jewish, so my Bible’s a little different,” said Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.). “But my Bible doesn’t say: ‘Support Israel only if you can get the IRS funding cut.’”
Johnson’s office did not respond Friday to a request for comment. But Republicans rejected the attacks on Johnson’s faith, accusing Democrats of trying to make religious hay out of a fiscal matter.
“I think that’s an unfair assessment,” Rep. Erin Houchin (R-Ind.) said Friday when asked about the Democratic criticisms. “We are in a critical fiscal calamity right now with our spending. It is a matter of national security for the United States that our fiscal house is in such poor shape, you know, we must offset spending and that’s the mechanism we chose to use.”
She also took a shot at the majority of Democrats for opposing the aid because of the IRS cuts.
“I hope that the Democrats will take that up and, you know, they won’t choose funding the IRS over Israel. But I don’t think that’s a fair criticism,” Houchin added of the attacks on Johnson’s faith.
The legislation is generating tension between the two parties, even though it has no chance of being enacted into law.
Democrats in the Senate and White House have made clear they’ll reject the House bill — warnings that have only animated the accusations from House lawmakers that Johnson crafted the legislation to appease the most conservative members of his GOP conference at the expense of moving it quickly.
“If we really believe that we have to speed aid to Israel, why would we have wasted all that time [Thursday], when we have so few days left on the calendar before the government shutdown anyway?” asked Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.).
Johnson was quick to reject the notion that he designed the bill with the political motivation of dividing Democrats, arguing he was simply trying to keep deficit spending in check by accompanying the new spending with budget cuts elsewhere.
“If Democrats in the Senate or the House — or anyone else, anywhere else — want to argue that hiring more IRS agents is more important than standing with Israel in this moment, I’m ready to have that debate,” Johnson told reporters Thursday. “But I did not attach that for political purposes, okay, I attached it because again, we’re trying to get back to the principle of fiscal responsibility here, and that was the easiest and largest pile of money that’s sitting there for us to be able to pay for this immediate obligation.”
The Congressional Budget Office, however, predicted the legislation would add more than $26 billion to the deficit.
Johnson’s Republican allies, nonetheless, echoed his defense.
“I don’t think we should ever let that determine our action in the House — what the Senate’s going to do,” said Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.).
“They can talk all they want about it being dead on arrival [in the Senate], but the biggest threat this country faces right now is our national debt,” he continued. “I applaud [Johnson] for his fiscal responsibility, and I hope it sets the tone of his Speakership that we are going to be fiscally responsible — that when we spend money, we’re going to have some offsets for it.”
But one week into the Johnson era — which was marked by the impassioned battle over Israel aid — Democrats are growing concerned about that tone, especially as the chamber prepares for a high-stakes legislative stretch marked by funding the government by a Nov. 17 deadline.
“I’m willing to give anybody the benefit of the doubt when they come into a leadership position, but this was it,” Moskowitz said Thursday. “This was his first full week, first big vote, national security issue for the American people, a national security issue for Israel, our No. 1 ally. And he played politics for it so that he could send out a political mailer.”