WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is about to go up against the hard-line fiscal conservatives in his party — and also in the South Carolina congressional delegation — to secure more foreign aid for countries linked to the fight against the terror group known as Islamic State.
Graham wants Congress to pass an emergency appropriations bill to the tune of “multiple billions” of dollars to help Israel confront the Islamic State, and to assist Egypt, Jordan and “probably” Lebanon with the strain of the terror threat and the flood of refugees fleeing Syria.
The details still need to be hashed out, but Graham, R-S.C., suggested he’d seek to advance the emergency funding in tandem with passing the fiscal 2017 State-Foreign Operations appropriations bill, where he has some control as chairman of the subcommittee.
At a briefing with reporters Thursday, Graham said he was motivated to move forward with this plan after a weeklong trip through Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, where he saw firsthand devastation, chaos and vulnerability.
“If you don’t think this is an emergency, you go yourself,” Graham said. “If you don’t think what’s happening with Sinai needs to be dealt with quickly, then you didn’t see what I saw. If you don’t think there’s an emergency brewing, I think you’re wrong. And if you go to Egypt and you don’t understand they need some help yesterday, (you’re) making a huge mistake.
“So to my budget-hawk friends, who are mostly Republican,” he continued, “you tell me where I’m wrong.”
Graham led the congressional delegation with some fellow Senate Republicans in tow, including North Carolina’s Thom Tillis and Georgia’s David Perdue. Graham said he thought both lawmakers could be sympathetic to the notion that “the time has come to put the money on the table.” He also predicted “a lot of Democrats” could support the effort, which has humanitarian and national security components. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a close friend of Graham’s, told reporters later in the day he would vote for it.
“The Middle East is on fire,” McCain said.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., this week is leading his own congressional delegation to many of the same stops that Graham and his group saw. Ryan and his colleagues could come back convinced that Graham’s plan has merit. But Graham knows he faces an uphill battle.
There isn’t enough money currently available to help Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon to the extent Graham thinks is necessary. A request for additional funding won’t pass muster with fiscal hawks unless the funds are offset elsewhere, and there’s no obvious federal program that can withstand that volume of cuts.
All this is taking place as Republicans in both chambers are fighting over spending levels generally, which is threatening to upend the entire appropriations process this year. Many Republicans, particularly those in leadership, want to write appropriations bills at the top-line number agreed to as part of a broad budget deal enacted last fall. Others want to return to the lower spending levels established during sequestration, which made passing appropriations bills nearly impossible. That curb effort is being led by members of the House Freedom Caucus, which includes South Carolina GOP Reps. Mark Sanford, Mick Mulvaney and Jeff Duncan.
It would be hard under ordinary circumstances to make the case for spending more money in a budget-conscious political environment, but the current debate makes it even harder. “I’d love to have the debate,” Graham said. “I’d love to go talk with anybody about why you don’t think this is an emergency.”
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.